Well, as I’d done some notes about holly previously I thought it would be a good idea to complete the trio of plants most associated with Yuletide/Christmas/Winter festivities.
Mistletoe (Viscum album)
Early antiquaries thought all types of Christmas foliage came from that used by the Romans at Saturnalia, which was a festival that originated in Greece. However, once mistletoe became especially popular, the more picturesque theory of Druidic origin gained ground. Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) recorded the following about mistletoe:
The Druids hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is Valonia oak … Mistletoe is, however, rather seldom found on Valonia oak, and when it is discovered it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the Moon (for which these [Gallic] trips constitutes the beginning of the months and years) … Hailing the Moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things’, they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and with a golden sickle cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to God to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.
Steve Roud in ‘Oxford Dictionary of Plant-lore’ comments that ‘largely as a result of this passage, more nonsense has been written about mistletoe than any other British plant’. It is responsible for more disinformation in British folklore than almost any other. Whatever its merits in itself, it has been repeated over and over and has been used for many flights of fancy about Druids and the ancient origins of our customs and beliefs.
Because of its Druid and pagan associations, mistletoe is traditionally banned from churches, according to the very influential John Brand in 1849. However, recent research has shown he was wrong, at least for some regions such as Staffordshire where churchwardens’ accounts record repeated purchases of mistletoe. In 1648 is first listed among the many evergreens decking churches and homes at Christmas by Herrick in Hesperides, no 893. From the Middle Ages on, the use of holly and ivy in this way has been well recorded.
Mistletoe became important in the late 18th century as part, and soon to be the most valued part, of the elaborate kissing boughs/bushes that were hung up in farmhouses and kitchens, of which kissing under the mistletoe was first recorded in 1813. There were rules as to when it must be taken down, which varied regionally. Why mistletoe was included was never recorded, and why kissing beneath it became popular is never fully explained, though it is commonly attributed to it being a Druidic/pagan fertility plant. This has been stated again and again that it has become ‘The Truth’ as opposed to ‘the truth’.
‘Pliny was writing about the Gauls, not the Brits. We do now know where or from whom he got his information about the Druids. Classical authors, however reliable they may be in other respects, are at their most unreliable when describing foreign people, their lands and their beliefs. There is no hint anywhere else to support Pliny’s report. There is no other mention of the sacred nature of mistletoe in Britain until antiquarians began reading and believing Pliny’s report some 1500 years later. Even if Pliny’s report was accurate, there is no evidence that the practice was continued into historical times or had any influence on later lore. Modern mistletoe beliefs are reported almost exclusively from England, and not the Celtic areas where was are told the Druidic traditions continue to have resonance.’ (4)
Nordic Mistletoe Myths
There may be a link to ancient Nordic myths too. Mistletoe, apparently, was the plant of peace in Scandinavian countries and if enemies met beneath it, they would lay their arms down and keep a truce until the next day. Perhaps it was this ancient Norse custom that led to the one of kissing beneath the mistletoe?
This tradition, however, went hand in hand with the story of the death and resurrection of Baldur, one of the most intriguing of the Norse myths, and perhaps it is this that is the start of the tradition of mistletoe as a ‘kissing plant’.
Baldur’s mother was the Norse goddess, Frigga. When Baldur was born, Frigga made each and every plant, animal and inanimate object promise not to harm Baldur. However, Frigga overlooked the mistletoe plant — and the mischievous god of the Norse myths, Loki, took advantage of this. Always the prankster, Loki tricked one of the other gods into killing Baldur with a spear made from mistletoe. This god was Hoder, who was Baldur’s blind brother. Loki guided Hoder’s hand, and Baldur’s heart was pierced by the spear. The death of Baldur, a vegetation deity in the Norse myths, brought winter to the world, although the gods did eventually restore Baldur to life, but not before Frigga’s tears had become the white berries of the mistletoe. After this, Frigga pronounced the mistletoe sacred, ordering that from now on it should bring love rather than death into the world. Happily complying with Frigga’s wishes, any two people passing under the plant from now on would celebrate Baldur’s resurrection by kissing under the mistletoe.Mistletoe etymology
While the romantic traditions woven around mistletoe give us a feeling that the plant is all dreamy and lovey-dovey, it’s interesting to ponder the etymology of ‘mistletoe’. The second century Anglo-Saxon name for it was misteltan, with mistel meaning dung and tan meaning twig. It was believed at that time that the plant grew directly from the birds’ dung rather than the seed that passed through its digestive system.
Kissing and love
- When a kiss is exchanged beneath the mistletoe, a berry should be removed. Once all the berries have gone, no more kissing that year!
- If an unmarried woman is not kissed beneath the mistletoe, she will not marry in the coming year.
- If a couple in love kiss under the mistletoe, it is considered a promise to marry.
After Christmas is over …
- Mistletoe should always be kept until the Christmas following. It is believed around the Chudleigh district that it will stop the house from being struck by lightning. At Ottery they say it will ensure that the house will never be without bread.
- A piece of mistletoe must be kept to be burned under the Shrove Tuesday pancakes.
- A piece of mistletoe must be kept from one year to the next because while mistletoe stays in the house love also stays.
- A sprig kept hanging on the beam until next Christmas will keep the witches out/keep evil spirits way/goblins away.
My own mistletoe tradition
I must admit that I keep a bunch of mistletoe hanging in my front room at home. I change it, usually, on the Winter Solstice, burning the old out doors. I use a blowtorch to set fire to the old bunch and it burns fantastically well! I make sure I stand upwind of the fumes too.
Why do I do this? Well, it’s become a tradition for me at this time of year. It symbolises the protection around my home that exists to keep bad away – maybe not ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, but to keep people of ill intent out, to neutralise any ill intent sent my way, to create an environment of peace and harmony and love. It seems to work … perhaps simply because it is a physical symbol of my intent to have such an environment around me, a safe environment to retire to when the world outside is just too much to cope with and I need quiet time to rest and recuperate. Burning the old symbolises letting go of the past years’ troubles and worries and upsets and so on, and the fire purifies the darker elements that the mistletoe has symbolically soaked up, returning them to the light.
Whether you believe it or not, it works for me!
Ivy (Hedera helix)
Considered by some to be unlucky to have in the house at any time other than Christmas.
Ivy leaves formed the poets crown in ancient times, as well as the wreath of Bacchus, to whom the plant was dedicated most probably because leaves of ivy were bound around the forehead to prevent intoxication.
Greek priests presented a wreath of ivy to newly-weds as a symbol of fidelity.
English taverns used to display a sign of an ivy bush over their doors to advertise the excellence of the liquor served within – ‘Good wine needs no bush’.
- Steve Roud, ‘Oxford Dictionary of Plant-lore’
- Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, ‘ A Dictionary of English Folklore’
- Ronald Hutton ‘The Stations of the Sun’
- Steve Roud, ‘Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland’
- The Mistletoe Pages
- Norse Myths and Mistletoe at About.com
- The Truth vs. the truth – an old Wyrdsmithing blog engry
- BBC’s h2g2 website