Apparently, the tradition started during the Black Death pandemic.
It’s a common phrase we hear – or we may have even said it ourselves – whenever someone sneezes. “God bless you” or simply “bless you” has often followed a sneeze and while Christendom has pointed out its first biblical mention in Numbers chapter 6 verse 24 of the Old Testament (the passage reads “The Lord bless you and keep you”), the phrase has commonly been used as a farewell message.
So how did it end up becoming an automatic response to sneezing? According to historians, the tradition traces its roots back to the days of the bubonic plague, which is also known as the Black Death pandemic.
In a blog by the UCatholic website, we learn that Pope Gregory I encouraged believers to pray for divine help during the destructive plague that claimed numerous lives in Europe. He also told the people to quickly bless those who sneeze – one of the signs of getting infected with the lethal disease.
In a New York Times feature, Fordham University history professor W. David Myers further explained:
“For European Christians, when the first plague that weakened the now Christian Roman Empire around 590, Pope Gregory the Great believed that a sneeze was an early warning sign of plague, so he commanded Christians to respond to a sneeze with a blessing.”
The tradition stuck and spread and eventually, the short phrase was further shortened after some began to drop the name of diety, reducing it to only “bless you” in an attempt to make it a bit a more universal.
Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and social scientist Dr. Omar Sultan Haque said that some atheists do not like the three-word blessing and so for them, a simple “bless you” is preferable as it only implies a wish for good health.
Frank Farley, a professor of psychology in Temple University also added:
“Saying simply ‘bless you’ also reduces religious implications or revelations about your own beliefs. It’s more nonsectarian.”
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