It wouldn’t be Christmas without Mistletoe. One glimpse of its pearlescent, full moon berries, its perfect symmetry and knobbly stems, and I’m back at the school Christmas disco, or at a house party filled with the fumes of mulled wine, and there’s the bunch of mistletoe tied on high, where precision timing was paramount if you were avoid an unpleasant festive ambush.
And the ritual of kissing beneath the mistletoe has ancient origins. It is cited in Ovid, Tacitus and by Pliny the Elder, remembered in folklore across Europe, revered and honoured by a host of English poets, and still firmly embedded in our own modern lexicon of folklore and tradition.
Thanks to the writings of the early roman invaders we have an inkling of the ritualistic uses of Mistletoe in earliest times. The iron age priesthood, the Druids, would don their white robes and cut a branch of Mistletoe on the new moon nearest the winter solstice using a golden sickle, whilst taking great care that no part of the plant touch the ground. It was such an important ritual that its memory remains even today carried down through at least two thousand years of retelling, for you read about on your computer screen right now. And that’s quite a thought.
So why the mistletoe? As seems sensible, many rituals related to the winter solstice have their roots in the hope of life in death, of survival. The holly and the ivy, the sun returning from its shortest day, the lighting of candles and the yule log, these are just a few rituals that have been passed down to us from a time when winter meant scarcity and possible starvation with few nutritious plants, little fresh meat, long nights and freezing temperatures. No wonder evergreen plants were revered, and candles and bonfires lit to summon the sun back so spring could return. And of all these symbolic plants mistletoe was the strangest.
It’s a hemi-parasitic plant that not only roots through the bark of certain trees but also photosynthesizes. It seems to belong to the sky far more than to the ground, and add to that its strange bony shape, its berries round and white as the moon and its habit of growing in a huge hovering cloud, and you have a plant striking enough to make you stop in your tracks and stare, druid or not.
Folklore tells us that the mistletoe not only feeds on the body of the oak but also on its spirit, so that when the winter comes and the oak leaves fall the mistletoe keeps the oak spirit safe, keeping it alive and well until the sunlight increases and the tree is ready to unfurl once more. It is easy to see why any self respecting druid would want to cut himself a sprig, and the magic doesn’t end there. If you allow your festive bunch of mistletoe to dry then it becomes ‘a golden bough’ an iconic symbol in both British and European folklore, and effective against ill-wishes, sickness and infertility. Indeed in many parts of Britain not only was a young woman encouraged to put a sprig of mistletoe beneath her pillow to dream of her future beloved, but it was also believed that the only way to ensure a loved up twelve months was to hang on to your solstice mistletoe and let it become the colour of the sun. I have yet to experiment with this, and therefore can’t gauge its veracity, but feel free to let me know.
So did the druids go to all that trouble just to get a kiss at Christmas? The answer is I don’t know, I haven’t, as yet, been to any druid Christmas parties, but it seems unlikely. The Anglo Saxons however, always a notoriously rowdy bunch, firmly linked the mistletoe to love and fertility – always the necessary ingredients to any really good Christmas party. During a particularly heated family argument, their Sun God Baldur was killed by a dart made of mistletoe – more solar symbolism – so instead of the poor mistletoe being banned from anymore Nordic family parties he was, instead, claimed by the Goddess of Love, Freya, who put her foot down and insisted that the strange plant-who-wasn’t-a-plant be welcomed as a symbol of love rather than hate.
There are other physical attributes to the berry that led the Anglo Saxons to believe it was directly linked to fertility but this might not be the place to discuss that particular topic. So it seems we may have our Anglo Saxon ancestors to thank for all that kissing, just as we have them to thank for giving our striking hemi-parasitic its name; Mistl – different, Tan – twig, from its differing characteristics to its host.
Now that we are fully expert in the history, folklore and fertility ramifications of our favourite festive plant, I’m sure there isn’t a single person reading this who isn’t itching to get outside and start growing their own cloud of mistletoe.
The bad news first – its seeds are most successfully disseminated by birds, it used to be the Mistle Thrush but due to its decline, the Black Cap has taken up the job and is doing it most successfully; mistletoe is thriving in Britain, especially in our gardens. It used to be viewed as a plant of the apple orchards and at its happiest in Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Somerset but it will happily grow outside these areas, although is unlikely to colonise in such abundance.
The good news is you don’t have to dress as a bird to germinate your own mistletoe, or have it pass through your digestive system first. Keep hold of your Christmas berries and then in spring do as the Black Caps do – squish a seed out of its casing and press it firmly on to the branch of a soft barked tree. It works best if you press the seed into the underneath, or side, of a young outer branch as it requires both light and moisture to germinate. It’s a good idea to stick four or five berries in at a time to increase the chance of germinating both male and female plants.
The biggest consideration is the type of host tree. Contrary to ancient belief, the mistletoe does not thrive on the English oak (the druids weren’t mistaken, however, as the links between mistletoe and oak have more to do with the geographical origins of the druid’s iron age beliefs, as there are many kinds of oak and many kinds of mistletoe). Our own British native Viscus album prefers the softer bark of hawthorn, rowan, black poplars, limes, whitebeams and, of course, the magnificent apple, and prefers open situations rather than woodlands. Germination will be fairly rapid then become static for eighteen months or so, but be patient, very patient, and in a few years you’ll be ready to don your white robe, dig out your golden sickle and woo everybody at the Christmas party with the size of your fertility symbol.
So may your Yule be merry and bright, and please feel free to share your success – with germinating the mistletoe, of course, not the dressing up as a druid for the Christmas party.
For more information on British mistletoe and why it’s imperative we support our British mistletoe farmers please visit British Mistletoe.org and The Mistletoe League Project here.
Further reading on mistletoe and folklore:
The Golden Bough – James Frazer.
The White Goddess – Robert Graves.
Blood and Mistletoe – Ronald Hutton.
A Modern Herbal – Mrs Grieve.
The Life and Death of a Druid Prince – Anne Ross.