Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Mistletoe! Story, Legend and Lore

While searching for folklore and legends about mistletoe, I came upon a reference to a ballad called "The Mistletoe Bough." Of course that sent me searching for lyrics, melody and more information.
What I found was intriguing: a ghost story, set at Christmas time, that is also a tragic love story, written as a poem that was later set to music. Opinions differ on the location of the story's events, the time they supposedly occurred, when the poem was written and even if it is a true story or merely a romantic tale.

The story apparently struck a chord with many people over the years. The ballad has been recorded by artists even recently (and available as a ringtone!). The story has been performed as a play and as a pantomime.

Something else that I found interesting was that the name of the young lady's lover, Lord Lovell, is the title of yet another ballad. Is it one and the same man? Proably not, but an odd coincidence all the same.

The ballad/poem continues to draw lovers of old mysteries and the singers of today. And if you should happen to buy an old English trunk, you might find that what you have was the final resting place of the young lady in the song.
This is the ballad version of the poem:
The Mistletoe Bough

by Thomas Haynes Bayley



The mistletoe hung in the castle hall
The holly branch shone on the old oak wall.
The Baron's retainers were blithe and gay,
Keeping the Christmas holiday.
The Baron beheld with a father's pride
His beautiful child, Lord Lovell's bride.
And she, with her bright eyes seemed to be
The star of that goodly company.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.


"I'm weary of dancing, now," she cried;
"Here, tarry a moment, I'll hide, I'll hide,
And, Lovell, be sure you're the first to trace
The clue to my secret hiding place."
Away she ran, and her friends began
Each tower to search and each nook to scan.
And young Lovell cried, "Oh, where do you hide?
I'm lonesome without you, my own fair bride."
Oh, the mistletoe bough.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.

They sought her that night, they sought her next day,
They sought her in vain when a week passed away.
In the highest, the lowest, the loneliest spot,
Young Lovell sought wildly, but found her not.
The years passed by and their brief at last
Was told as a sorrowful tale long past.
When Lovell appeared, all the children cried,
"See the old man weeps for his fairy bride."
Oh, the mistletoe bough.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.

At length, an old chest that had long laid hid
Was found in the castle; they raised the lid.
A skeleton form lay mouldering there
In the bridal wreath of that lady fair.
How sad the day when in sportive jest
She hid from her lord in the old oak chest,
It closed with a spring and a dreadful doom,
And the bride lay clasped in a living tomb.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.
Oh, the mistletoe bough.

Here is the poem:

The Mistletoe Bough

by Thomas Haynes Bayly (spelled variously in different documents, as you can see)

The mistletoe hung in the castle hall,
The holly branch shone on the old oak wall;
And the baron's retainers were blithe and gay,
And keeping their Christmas holiday.


The baron beheld with a father's pride
His beautiful child, young Lovell's bride;
While she with her bright eyes seemed to be
The star of the goodly company.

'I'm weary of dancing now," she cried;
"Here, tarry a moment - I'll hide - I'll hide!
And, Lovell, be sure thou'rt first to trace
The clew to my secret lurking place."

Away she ran - and her friends began
Each tower to search, and each nook to scan;
And young Lovell cried, "O, where dost thou hide?
I'm lonesome without thee, my own dear bride."

They sought her that night! and they sought her next day!
And they sought her in vain while a week passed away!
In the highest, the lowest, the loneliest spot,
Young Lovell sought wildly - but found her not.

And years flew by, and their grief at last
Was told as a sorrowful tale long past;
And when Lovell appeared the children cried,
"See! the old man weeps for his fairy bride."

At length an oak chest, that had long lain hid,
Was found in the castle-they raised the lid,
And a skeleton form lay moldering there
In the bridal wreath of that lady fair!

0, sad was her fate!-in sportive jest
She hid from her lord in the old oak chest.
It closed with a spring!-and, dreadful doom,
The bride lay clasp’d in her living tomb!


So there's the story. Now for all the background sources:
Information and the melody of the ballad can be found at this website.
This site offers a brief background of the song and its origins, but for a full, detailed history of the song from the book, Stories of Famous Songs, go here.
One version of the ballad, and a link to a sung version that didn't work for me; perhaps you will have better luck.
A little more trivia about the poem and the place where the events supposedly happened.
The poem arranged as a play--an interesting idea for a Christmas play, if a bit on the dark side.
A New York Times article from 1877 about a pantomime performance of the story.
Today you can have the song as a cell phone ringtone performed by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Anthony Trollope's story of the same name speaks more of romance than folklore.
An entirely different poem by the same name, by American poet Ellis Parker Butler (b.1869, d.1937).
There you have it: The Mistletoe Bough in many shapes and forms. It wasn't what I started to research, but I found myself following the trail of this old story, and thought many of you might find it as interesting as I did.

7 comments:

City Mouse said...

Hey, I know the Lord Lovell ballad! And the Academy of Music that the panto performance was held at is very close to my house.

Granny Sue said...

I sing the Lord Lovell ballad, too, Mouse--it's on my CD, actually.

Janet, said...

That was so sad. Good research, Susanne.

Deborah Wilson said...

Good poem/story - makes one think twice about hiding!

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