Behind the Wishful Nursery Rhyme, “Star Light, Star Bright”

When all else fails, what do you do? You wish. That is the essence of the traditional nursery rhyme, Star Light, Star Bright. Below we dive into the meaning of the rhyme, a bit about its history, and how important it can be to those with nowhere else to go.

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The Meaning

We’ve all been there. Everything seems lost. All seems against you, or at least unwilling to help you in your hour of need. When people and situations fail, there is always the heavens. That was the impulse that began, at least in part, the writing of this nursery rhyme.

Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight;
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight

The speaker is beseeching the stars, the sky, and any gods that might be listening. In the darkness of despair, a star appears. It’s the first true star the speaker sees. So, he bends his knees and begs upward. What the wish is can be anything. It’s up to you. But the wish won’t be answered unless it’s honestly felt.

The History of Shooting Stars

Before telescopes, before science as we know it, people could still look up to the heavens and see the sky. In fact, the farther back in history, the more stars they could see, sans light pollution. As such, the impulse to make a wish upon seeing a shooting star—the rare image of one of those twinkling stars dotting the night sky actually moving—likely dates back to ancient times.

While Star Light, Star Bright dates back to the late 19th century in America, scholars like Richard Webster in his Encyclopedia of Superstitions say the act of wishing on the first star seen also goes back further.

The rhyme, however, summarized that impulse nicely and has since spread to other countries globally, including the U.K., according to A Dictionary of Superstitions by Iona Opie & Moira Tatem. And in pop culture, the first two lines of the four-line rhyme open the song, “Lucky Star,” by Madonna.


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