Wish Upon a Star

Context: The informant is my mother, identified as L.M., a woman born, raised, and living in Northern California. While having dinner together at my family home, I asked her whether she remembered any rituals she and her friends had when they were young.

Main Piece: “Growing up in a relatively small town, my brother and I used to play outside a lot at night during the summers with the neighborhood kids. I remember from a young age being with my childhood girlfriends and we’d lay on the lawn in one of our backyards and wait for the first stars to come out and sing:

‘Star Light, Star Bright, the first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight.’

Then, we’d each close our eyes and make a wish. It felt almost like a solemn oath and mysterious ritual to me. I think we kept the wishes to ourselves, rather than tell each other what we wished for. I don’t know who I learned this poem from. It was definitely something that was passed on orally and just seemed to be universally known by us all from a very young age. I think that I probably had a nursery rhyme book that included it, too.”

Analysis: “Star Light, Star Bright” is an English language nursery rhyme, has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 16339, and first began to be recorded in the late nineteenth century. The song and tradition seem to have reached Britain by the early twentieth century and then spread worldwide. This particular song calls out to the first star of the night, whereas other similar superstitions were based upon the granting of wishes made when seeing a shooting or falling star. The custom of wishing on a first star likely predates the rhyme, and that of wishing on a shooting or falling start may date back to the ancient world and the influences of the astronomer Ptolemy. (For another version of this chant, see the Disney Park Fireworks show performances.)