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As luck would have it

When it comes to knowing what the future holds, we like to hedge our bets.

Feeling frail? A little jittery about the year ahead? Don't panic - someone somewhere has got you covered.

Down at your local gift shop, packs of glossy oracle cards offer guidance from angels, unicorns and fairies. Crosses, crystals and lucky charms can be picked up for a song. Horoscopes can give you a day-by-day prediction of things just around the corner, and a pantheon of tarot, palm- and number-readers will veer you away from devastatingly wrong decisions.

Where once Linda Goodman's star signs ruled the prophetic airwaves, we are now awash with multicultural, multi-being, multi-advisory messages.

Are we that superstitious?

For a country built on secular pragmatism, have we become a nation of wood-touching, salt-throwing, crack-jumping, finger-crossing, spell-casting rune readers?

"Probably more than we like to think," says Dr Marc Wilson, psychology lecturer at Victoria University. "Part of the New Zealand character is a certain pragmatism, but there's a good chunk of people who believe in such things."

Like ghosts. Wilson's recent Wellington survey found that one third of people do not believe in ghosts, with the remainder evenly split between the don't knows and the for sures. Although only 10 percent are rattled by black cats or broken mirrors, around half of those questioned refuse to walk under ladders (a sound piece of superstition, when you consider the hammer or paint pot abandoned on the top step) and a third carry lucky charms or touch wood to stave off bad luck.

"People might not believe it makes any difference, but it's what we do - we hedge our bets."

Usually, says Wilson, superstition reflects a certain fear or anxiety. Although the strongly religious are fairly clear about what room they'll go to after they've been kicked out of this life's classroom, further down the faith gauge there are no such assurances.

"If you feel that things are outside your control, you have to find a way to predict what's going to happen. And the more people see the world as a dangerous place - and this has been the case since September 11 - the more they tend to go to things like horoscopes."

Is that a problem?

"Only if people are making quite important decisions like finances or medical treatment."

Although New Zealand hotels blithely call the 13th floor the 13th floor, superstitious horse breeders try to tap into the prowess of Phar Lap by using only seven-letter names for their horses. The red socks of the 1995 America's Cup challenge have become a national symbol of good luck and Lotto buyers notoriously cram their tickets with personally significant digits.

"Superstition says there is an order," says Mike Grimshaw, religious studies lecturer at the University of Canterbury, "and a reason for things to occur, a sense of karma that you can tap into."

Unlike religion, he says, it is non-hierarchical, non-institutional, radically democratic and usually private.

Like the secretive pleasure of Destiny Fortune Chocolates.

Over the past year, we gorged our way through over 50,000 small, hand-wrapped, top-quality chocolates, each containing a brief but pithy truism.

"The messages aren't second-hand," says founder and manager Jane Archer. "They're not downloaded off the internet. They are based on my experiences and I think people feel that. There's a sincerity there."

An ex-nurse, Archer says that she is not a fortune teller. "It's about those basic feelings from the heart that fuel generosity and kindness. The messages say that we all have the ability to be happy, because that comes from within us. And people know that, that's why it hits the mark. I'm not preaching, I'm not patronising."

When her sister died of a brain tumour nearly 10 years ago, Archer had to dig deep to find that sense of belief. Now that she, too, has been diagnosed with a tumour, she finds that she can still hold onto that very basic sense of inner well-being.

"You're content when you stop wanting something you don't have. That's what these say. A lot of people make fun of them, but that's okay - it still makes them laugh."

In the face of New Year uncertainty, political threat and pick'n'choose celestial helplines, maybe it really is as simple as that.

Unicorns, take note.