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.
Happy Halloween to all my spook-tacular readers!
Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to put together a brand new seasonal post this year, but here’s a few of my previous Halloween offerings for your scary enjoyment:
It’s time for me to hop on my broomstick and fly, so wrap up warm and stay safe this Halloween. And make sure you check under the bed for monsters before you go to sleep tonight…
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us! – traditional Scottish prayer
I’ve written previously about strange and interesting seasonal traditions, but here’s one I don’t think I’ve ever covered before….
A Twitter discussion last week about the wonder of proper British puddings (seriously, they really are the best in the world when done right) reminded me that today is Stir-Up Sunday. In this age of ready meals and 24 hour supermarkets, that may not mean much to you, but for many families it has long been the traditional start of the preparations for the Christmas season.
Stir-Up Sunday falls on the last Sunday before the start of Advent (as calculated by the Anglican church), and although it began life as a tradition loosely associated with religion and the impact of the church calendar on the everyday lives of ordinary people, it soon developed to have both religious and secular aspects – much as Christmas itself does in our modern world. Despite this tradition only really stretching back a couple of hundred years in its best-known form, the name ‘Stir-Up Sunday’ itself is derived from a prayer that dates back to the 16th century Book Of Common Prayer. Still said in a modern form every year on the last Sunday before Advent, the original version reads:
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
That’s all very well, but what exactly does Stir-Up Sunday involve in reality? It’s the day on which households would traditionally gather to make the Christmas pudding for the year, having been reminded by the prayer said in church that morning – with each member of the family taking it in turns to ‘stir up’ the mixture and make a private, secret wish. In some traditions, there is a distinctly religious element to this, as it is believed that the pudding mixture must be made with twelve or thirteen ingredients (to represent Jesus and his disciples) and stirred from East to West (right to left, or clockwise) to honour the Three Wise Men of the Nativity.
During the six long years of World War Two, Christmas was a much-needed chance to celebrate and forget the horrors of the conflict – but it was also a sad time for millions of people, with so many families separated by death, evacuation and military service, so many homes destroyed by bombing, and so many shortages everywhere.
War broke out in September 1939, and that Christmas was a relatively normal one. There was no rationing – yet – but the British people knew that shortages were officially due to begin the following January and many were determined to enjoy themselves while they still could.
However, the war still loomed over the festive season: the best-selling toys that Christmas had a military theme, while adults gave each other fancy decorated gas mask cases and steel helmets alongside the usual seasonal gifts. The Christmas edition of Women’s Weekly magazine got in on the act too, suggesting that the inside of blackout blinds could be decorated for the festive season.
By Christmas 1940, the shortages were already biting and the bombs were dropping – which made small artificial trees very popular, as they could be taken down into air raid shelters to give these gloomy places a touch of festive cheer during some of the heaviest bombing of the Blitz. Good Housekeeping magazine even suggested a recipe for a Christmas cake in the shape of an Anderson shelter! The most popular gift that year appears to have been soap, which ended up being a real luxury in Europe at various points during the war.
Every family and every community has its own Christmas traditions, some relatively new and some maintained over many generations. Looking forward to the things my own family does every Christmas got me thinking about how Christmas was celebrated in the past and the historical origins of so many of Britain’s seasonal traditions. For example, why do we eat certain foods at Christmas? Why do we put up a Christmas tree? And what on earth is a wassail?
After pondering the answers to these and other questions, I dug out the keys to the Another Kind Of Mind Christmas time machine (it’s a bit like the Tardis, only with more tinsel and fairy lights) and decided to go on a whistlestop tour of festive history to find out the truth behind a few of our often ancient Christmas traditions.
Tomorrow we’ll be visiting the Victorians to find out how they reinvented the festive season. Wednesday will see a trip to the 17th century, when Christmas was briefly banned by the Puritan government, and Thursday takes us all the way back to the Middle Ages, when seasonal celebrations combined pagan and Christian traditions with great gusto.
But we start off today with a short hop back in time to the Second World War, where we’ll discover what Christmas was like during a period of rationing and the constant threat of bombing…
After Jack O’Lanterns, second sight, Soul Cakes and sea monsters in Part 1 of the Another Kind Of Mind Halloween Special, Part 2 looks at the myriad weird ways to predict your love life at Halloween…
In a recent post, I looked at the ancient but often rather gruesome and spooky practice of the Crow Augury, but there are many other, slightly less dramatic but equally powerful, methods of divination which are more intimately and very personally connected to the celebrations at this time of year.
In fact, a lot of the varied types of divination associated with Halloween (as, interestingly, with those connected to Christmas) are more to do with a slightly more positive subject matter: the age-old topic of love and the finding of it, mostly for young women – although some of these fortune-telling methods are said to work for young single men too.
As with every other major festival or holiday in the calender, there are countless customs, legends and superstitions associated with Halloween. Although the festival has links to Christianity, some of the superstitions surrounding it are (as is often the case) far older than that, dating back to the pre-Christian fire festival of Samhain, which marked the beginning of the Celtic new year.
Some of these are still practiced in one form or another today, others are more unusual or have fallen out of common usage. This Halloween, we’re going on a spooky journey through some of these seasonal traditions and superstitions, starting with one you will probably be very familiar with…
Pumpkins and Jack O’Lanterns:
There are several possible explanations for the tradition of carving pumpkins (or, traditionally, turnips) and placing candles inside them at Halloween. There appears to have been an ancient custom of using brightly lit lanterns to ward off the evil spirits which lurked abroad in the darkening days of late Autumn – modern Jack O’Lanterns may well be a reflection of this superstition.