Ask any average person in the UK what they know about mistletoe and the majority of respondents will probably mention the tradition of kissing under it at Christmas. A few might know something about its possible much earlier connections to Druidry – but it’s the snogging most people focus on, for obvious reasons! Like the young lady in the image to the right I’m not too keen on this aspect of the festive celebrations (she really doesn’t look very impressed with his attentions at all!), but I was curious about what else is known about this unusual evergreen seasonal plant, and I was fascinated by what I found out…
There are actually hundreds of different and often ancient species of mistletoe growing in numerous places worldwide, and new types are still being found in the wild by scientists (most recently in 2008) – but I’m going to focus on the traditional, white-berried European mistletoe (Latin name: Viscum album); the one we’re all most familiar with.
It may actually sound like it ought to be something out of a cheap horror b-movie, but mistletoe is scientifically defined as a parasitic plant. As such, it grows on the branches of various different trees, particularly favouring apple orchards. This can have a distorting effect on the growth of these trees if the mistletoe is not pruned back from time to time, preventing the tree from growing new leaves and even killing it in extreme cases.
However, and despite the slightly creepy effects of its parasitic nature, mistletoe actually plays an important role in biodiversity via its interactions with other plants and animals, which ends up creating what can only be described as the mistletoe plant’s very own ecosystem. Such complex associations between these different creatures are crucial in supporting specialist species of birds (such as the aptly named mistle thrush, which helps to distribute the plant’s seeds), insects and fungi.
In the UK, mistletoe is comparatively rare. In fact, you’ll only find it in relatively large amounts in some parts of the Midlands, where apple orchards have long been very common – it is found elsewhere in the country, though: it seems there has also been a longstanding mistletoe survey conducted at Hampton Court Palace on the outskirts of London. However, it appears that British mistletoe has been in decline over the last few decades and is considered to be under threat in some places – although, luckily, that hasn’t had a major impact on the famous annual mistletoe festival and auction held each December at Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire, which continues to be a seasonal tradition in the area.
Mistletoe is also associated with a number of myths and legends from many different cultures, going back as far as Norse mythology (the story of the trickster god Loki indirectly killing Odin’s son Baldur with a dart made of mistletoe is a well-known tale), and the plant was even important to the ancient Greeks and Romans both medically and, in particular, mythologically (the legend of Aeneas and the Golden Bough, as told in Virgil’s The Aeneid, involves mistletoe, and there seems to have been a connection with the Roman midwinter festival of Saturnalia too).
It is, in fact, via the Romans that we get most of our (admittedly scanty) information on Druidic mistletoe rituals. Much of what we believe we know comes from the historian Pliny the Elder, who is now well known for being… er… perhaps a touch unreliable – and very little else is generally known for definite about the Druids otherwise. However, there appears to be some evidence for customs similar to the Druidic rituals described by Pliny in other accounts of Celtic religious activities and their symbolism, which suggests there may be an element of truth to his version of events.
It seems that the modern association between mistletoe and fertility may come from these ancient Roman accounts of such Celtic rituals (there is also much evidence of it being medicinally related to fertility over many centuries), compounded by a revival of interest in the Druids and their mysterious activities during the 18th and 19th centuries. This connection has continued into modern times, with today’s Pagans and Druids often re-adopting these ancient rituals as part of their celebration of important festivals such as that of the Winter Solstice (which just so happens to be today, incidentally…).
So, finally we reach the connections with Christmas – and there are actually more mistletoe-related seasonal traditions than just the kissing thing. But it’s the kissing thing you want to know about, right? Again, this seems to have connections to Norse mythology and the worship of the goddess Frigg, the mother of Baldur (see above) and guardian of marriage and childbirth – indeed, in many places, mistletoe was also seen as a useful charm that could help a single young woman find herself a husband.
But the kissing tradition in the form that we know it today only dates back to the 19th century, and appears to have been a local custom in various parts of the UK – to begin with, at least. With the growth of mass communication and transport, the kissing game rapidly spread across the country (and later across the English-speaking world). As with much in the Victorian world, a particular etiquette was involved. The rules were simple, if perhaps a little coercive, in that a man could ask a woman for a kiss under a sprig of mistletoe and it was bad luck for the woman to refuse. A variation on this theme involved picking a berry from the sprig with each kiss, only stopping when the berries were all gone.
All of these customs are based on ideas that date back to pre-Christian times and involve religious rituals often associated with those that were at least partially adapted into the early Christian church, which might (or might not) explain why it seems that some denominations still see mistletoe as a ‘pagan’ plant and will not allow it to be used in the decoration of churches at Christmas – although I would tentatively suggest that celebrating the birth of a child, as is done at Christmas (evergreen plants or no), is also most definitely celebrating fertility!
Alongside its almost endless associations with fertility and snogging random partygoers, mistletoe is also supposed to have the power of warding off evil. At this time of the waning year, when the boundaries between this world and the next are believed to be particularly porous, it is not uncommon to find these kinds of beliefs and rituals about good and evil playing an important role in midwinter festivals of all kinds. To protect your house from dark forces, it is said, you should keep your Christmas or Yule mistletoe hanging up for the next twelve months. When the festive season rolls round again, the old mistletoe can be replaced and ceremoniously burned – and the cycle of the year begins again…
A very happy Solstice to you all!
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You can find much more in the way of festive reading from me here.