- Holidays and Celebrations
Tales Of Ye Ol' Mistletoe
three ages of mistletoe myths.
The Victorian revival of kissing under the mistletoe, the Druid reverence as a "heal-all", mainly reported by the Roman Pliny the Viking stories of resurrection from death and the revival from sleep with a kiss, which today is a touching moment in several fairy stories and Christmas pantomimes. I will share a few words with you here to expand some of the tales of these myths and reveal that though the mistletoe is revered with the oak it is rarely found there, but usually found on apple trees.
kissing under the mistletoe
Lets start with this, the Yule custom most of us are familiar with. Mistletoe found its way back into acceptance when the Victorians revived Yule traditions and included a ritual of kissing under the Mistletoe as a sign of love, romance and good luck.
Some of the stories of kissing under the mistletoe seem to erupt into tales of mass orgies, but it does seem that, kissing under the mistletoe, from the Victorian revival of traditions until our present has never really get out of hand, though some have told us it almost did.
To prevent abuse ubder the mistletoe the Victorians revived a custom that defined when a man steals a kiss with a woman under a hanging branch of mistletoe one berry was to be plucked from the plant and discarded. Once the berries were gone, the kissing charm of the mistletoe branch was spent and disposed of.
How many of us follow that entire custom and traditions today?
It is said the kissing under the mistletoe ritual is a change of interpretation from an ancient ritual and legend of peace. Stories tell of enemies meeting under mistletoe and its enchantment caused them to cast their weapons aside, hug each other and proclaim a truce. I wonder if we can revive this one again around the world?
Another tradition revived during the Victorian revival, but largely forgotten today, is placing a sprig of mistletoe in a baby's cradle would protect the child from being kidnapped by faeries. A changeling legend from Erin, of course.
If we do practice that today, care must be taken due to the berries being poison to the bairn, and to us too. Maybe that's why is is "forgotten" today.
mistletoe as druid magic
A lot of people I talk to about the mistletoe traditions today turn the conversation on the Druid reverence of mistletoe before they even refer to the kissing tradition, if at all.
The Druid tradition and use of mistletoe mainly comes from the writings of the Roman, Pliny the Elder, though many folk are not aware that it is his observations they are sharing.
Pliny was a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher. He was also both naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire. Though Pliny spent most of his spare time studying, investigating and writing up about natural and geographic phenomena it must be remembered that his career and main intent was part of the Romans building an empire.
That did not include praising the Celtic tribes, but often using false information and propaganda to erase support for them and to discredit the Druid leaders. Conquerors through history have always written history to their own advantage.
Though Pliny does describe how Druids used mistletoe in ceremonies of human sacrifice he also scribed information that we can use to create a positive interpretation, sympathy and reverence when we create our own revival of traditions.
Pliny the Elder referred to Druid priests of cutting away mistletoe from oak trees using golden sickles and spreading white linen on the ground under the tree to prevent the dropped trimmings touching the earth which would negate their powers, releasing them back to the earth.
It is said that Druids regarded nothing more sacred than mistletoe, as long as it was gathered from oak trees. Druids regarded anything growing on oak trees as being sent to them as something special from the other world.
If mistletoe was present on an oak tree that was regarded as the most sacred gift, the berries being the sperm of the great spirit, by this time of druids from God rather than Goddess, therefore the berries are of extreme life, of healing, of fertility, or so they believed.
Mistletoe is rarely found on oak, though. It is more common to find it on apple and hawthorn trees, sometimes on birch and poplar too, so mistletoe found on oak is extremely special due to this being extremely rare.
When mistletoe was discovered on an oak tree it was gathered with great ceremony, on the ninth day after a new moon in December because on that day the mistletoe berries would be rising in strength.
Pliny described a ritual of bringing two white bulls to the oak tree, with mistletoe present, and their horns were bound together. After the priest, wearing a white cloak, had cut down the mistletoe onto another white linen cloak, the bulls would be killed after a thanksgiving ceremony, which Pliny describes as "sacrifice", and then eaten for feasting.
Those of you who eat beef will know that beef is best if left awhile after butchering, so I suspect such a feast was also some days later, possibly at full moon after the mistletoe gathering but more likely the following new moon.
Pliny mentions five days of feasting after the mistletoe gathering. Maybe the beef was tenderized over five days to be tender and ready for the main feast at full moon. Pliny called this "hailing the moon" and to hail the moon was also to "heal all things". This writing has been passed down since as referring to mistletoe as being the Druid's "Heal-All".
With this beef at the feasting it is said a drink was prepared, a cider or mead, that contained mistletoe that was served to all animals, the cattle, sheep, goats and horse, as well as to humans, to heal all and boost fertility.
Again, I urge do not experiment with this at home as you would become ill from mistletoe very quickly. It seems the secrets of mistletoe are with the well seasoned trained herbalists and not with the kitchen and barbecue cooks, and certainly not with home remedy herbalists and amateur dramatics style druids.
Well trained and highly experienced herbalists do have very delicate formulas for healing insomnia, high blood pressure and even some malignant tumours.
mistletoe as protective decoration
Like holly and ivy and the evergreen trees mistletoe retained its fresh green color through winter. Pliny describes the custom of hanging mistletoe sprigs over doorways to protect against lightning and other "evils", and mistletoe in the home increases fertility with all those present. It is said the Druid priest would set aside some mistletoe for healing then divided the remainder into small sprigs that people at the feast could take home to hung them over their doorways.
As I mentioned, Pliny was mainly interested in natural history and it does seem that his own account of Druids and their practices are as largely fanciful through a combination of lack of understanding by not being fully engaged, along with a motivation to write what Romans would like to read so there is a hint of propaganda too.
Unfortunately, it is to Pliny we reference these traditions from as he seems to be the only classical author to describe the mistletoe gathering and feasting ceremony. Everything else we read and hear as hearsay is likely to be rooted in Pliny's account, combined with personal divine interpretation which I feel is also extremely valuable.
Pliny's descriptions of banquetting, moon cycle reverence and the sacrifice of animals, which is really respectful slaughtering, is well known from other sources of old ways accounts.
Aside of Pliny we have also inherited some more clues about mistletoe from early Celtic art showing human heads bearing leafy crowns engraved on jewellery found at stone monuments, and these leaves do look like mistletoe. The feasting and healing at specific times of the moon are also well shown through ancient art. A lot of this art can be seen through Google searches.
Of course, there are accounts of variations of these mistletoe, moon reverence and feasting traditions continuing but like all old ways traditions the Puritan church banned the ritual use of mistletoe in or near churches in England.
Somehow this never caught on up to and around York. In the famous minster at York, the hanging and display of mistletoe has always been retained, even today.
mistletoe the ancient Norse wonder
Tracing the oldest origin of mistletoe tradition, like with most winter tradition, takes us way back into Norse traditions and customs.
It was here that the story and custom of enemies meeting under mistletoe and its enchantment caused them to cast their weapons aside, hug each other and proclaim a truce ... for at least a day.
This is the Norse origin of kissing under the mistletoe as we actually do not revive the Celtic tradition of beef and mistletoe induced mead, though me may continue the Celtic tradition of hanging mistletoe on our door but rather than honour it for protection, also use that for kissing under.
There is a Norse myth of mistletoe that has ended up in many fairy stories and Christmas pantomimes. This is the "myth of Baldur", his death and resurrection.
Baldur's mother was the Norse goddess, Frigga. When Baldur was born, Frigga made every animal and plant promise to never harm Baldur who was then a Norse god of vegetation. But Frigga did not get around to accepting a promise from the mistletoe.
The mischievous Norse god Loki took advantage of this oversight tricked another god, name unknown, into killing Baldur with a spear made from mistletoe. When Baldur he was killed with the mistletoe spear, ice, snow and cold winds immediately came onto this earth.
At that time the berries of the mistletoe were red but as Frigga cried over Baldur's body, day and night, three days later the berries on the mistletoe spear turned white and Baldur awoke healed and alive again.
From then on Baldur transformed from being God of the Earth and Vegetation to being the God of Light.
Frigga then pronounced the mistletoe as being sacred, ordering that from now on it should be a symbol of love and light rather than created into a weapon of death and darkness.
Some say that Frigga also pronounced that the mistletoe should be respected whenever two people walked under its branchs at the same time through them hugging, kissing and acknowledging its symbol of love.
mistletoe in nature
The quest for the origin of "mistletoe" leads us on a journey into Indo-European roots.
The mistletoe word originated from a perception that mistletoe plants magically seed and grow from the dropped excrement of the missel, or mistel thrush.
It was observed in ancient times that mistletoe would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings. 'Mistel' is from a Saxon word for 'dung,' and 'toe' is said to have been twisted from a Saxon word 'tan' meaning twig. So the word mistletoe means 'dung-on-a-twig'.
By the sixteenth century botanists had discovered that the mistletoe plant seed were spread through the excrement of different birds, but the mistletoe berries, which are toxic to humans and animals, are a favorite treat of the mistel thrush, and that's how that species of thrush acquired its name.
Of course, if the mistel thrush is a big eater of these berries, it is assumed that this bird is also the main spreader of its seeds.
When seeds from bird excrement land on a tree the tree is most commonly an apple, or hawthorn, sometime birch and poplar and very rarely on oak.
The mistletoe seeds embed in the tree branches and trunk to feed off of its nutrients. It is a parasite that never independently grows to acquire its own food.
Because of its popular traditions, the English mistletoe plant sustains a very profitable business through December.
Mistletoe farmers carefully cut boughs from the mistletoe in their apple orchards. These farmers, unlike the Druids it seems, are careful to leave some bunches of mistletoe behind to ensure a crop the following year.
Farmers and travelling people can be seen selling from this crop at English midlands and Welsh border farmer's markets in places such as Ludlow, Hereford, Bridgnorth etc. from the end of November until Yule.
Today's Druid definitely exercise their reverence for mistletoe. Many bring along their followers to celebrate winter solstice in fields full of mistletoe in the orchards of Herefordshire. The farmers are, fortunately, acceptable to this tradition.
We folks of today have conveniently forgotten the part about plucking the berries after kissing so the berries never seem to run out.
Never be tempted to pick them and eat them to enhance fertility and virility as to most of us very amateur herbalists the berries are very toxic.
As with our Yule trees, laurels, holly and ivy, mistletoe is an evergreen, white or cloudy yellow berries on glossy green leaved twigs, that is displayed in home or above home entrances during the festive season from mid-summer Solstice until Epiphany. These days many people hang them much earlier than mid-winter and take them down earlier too, sometimes before the end of December. I am not converted to the "do it earlier" tradition yet, myself.
Mistletoe is not just for kissing under but is symbolic of the eventual rebirth of vegetation that will bud and blossom in spring, one reason I would leaving hanging mistletoe until mid-winter Solstice so it would capture this symbolism.
Perhaps more than any other of the Christmas evergreens we bring into our homes for the festive season, mistletoe is a plant that most of us are only conscious of during the midwinter festivities.
One day we are kissing under the mistletoe, and the next day we have forgotten all about the plant and never notice it or point it out in the open.
When the Christmas decorations come down, mistletoe fades from our minds glazed over into into the hidden mist of mythology for another year, just like the christmas lights packed and stored in the loft or attic. Many people doe not think of where mistletoe comes from. Ask many people and their guess response is that it is a plant that grows from the ground in nurseries in other countries than their own.
I hope this little feature here now arouses the imagination as well as passion when you happen to be under a mistletoe sprig with someone else over this winter festive time.
I believe some magic is kindled when the mistletoe embraces us with light of peace and resurrection and not just erection.
other Lenses in this series ...
- Visions Of St. Lucy - in Midwinter?
the mother of mid-winter, her miracles and recipes
- Tales Of Ye Ol' Yule Log
we cruise around searching for the origins of the Yule Log tradition,
- Tales Of Ye Ol' Holly n' Ivy
we know the carol of Holly and Ivy, here's tales of their myths.
- Which Christmas Tree is for you
a review of 22 different types of Christmas trees with pics, benefits, aromas and care tips
- Black Bun for Hogmanay
No celebration of Hogmanay and days of First Footin' would be complete without a Black Bun.