Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight.
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight.
With its gently cantering rhythm and alliteration, ‘Star Light, Star Bright’, commemorates and propagates the ancient tradition of wishing to the stars. The tradition takes many forms, variously invoking the power of the first star; nine stars; a shooting star. The most enduring myth is that shooting stars are caused by the Roman gods peering over the clouds into the mortal realm, and they will hear you (and perhaps heed you) when you speak your wish aloud.
Theshootingstar notes the same tradition in other cultures:
Even contemporary culture is abound with superstitions related to shooting stars. In Chile, for instance, when you spot a shooting star, you must pick up a stone in the same moment, while making a wish. (Quick thinking, I must say.) If you’re in the Philippines, you must tie a knot in your handkerchief instead. (Too bad if you don’t carry one around.)
The tradition is recalled in The Ladies Treasury for 1882: a household magazine:
I am trying to find a star,” replied the child, artlessly, ” so that I may wish. Jenny Brooks taught me how.
and here it is collected orally in volume four of Current Superstitions, 1896:
To wish on a star, when you see the first star come out, say: Star light, star bright, First star I see to-night, I wish I may, I wish I might Have the wish I wish to-night. Wish what you please and it will come true[.]
The rhyme does not appear in Opie, so it’s difficult for me to give you a certain first publication date for the rhyme, but the first reference that I can find is in Swallows on the wing o’er garden springs of delight: a medly of prose and verse (Will de Grasse, 1866) where it is rendered thus:
The first star I have seen to-night;
I wish I may,
I wish I might,
Have the wish I have wished to-night.
‘Star Light, Star Bright’ is an elusive rhyme of the type that might turn out to be a spy. References to the rhyme and the superstition abound but none can provide a definite point of origin; those that do suggest theories rarely cite reliable sources. I think this one may remain a mystery.