Thursday, December 8, 2016

More About Mistletoe

A few years ago I posted a little bit about mistletoe, but there is much more about this small parastic plant that plays a large role in our holiday festivities.

For example, did you know that if you kiss someone under the mistletoe, you are supposed to remove one berry from the bunch? That might be difficult if your bunch is plastic, as much mistletoe is these days. And what if your twig has no berries at all? Does that mean no kisses? And if a single woman should not be kissed under the bough during the winter holiday, she would likely remain single the rest of the year.

Why the kissing tradition? According to this site, mistletoe once offended the gods, who therefore comdemned it to have to look on while pretty girls were being kissed." Poor mistletoe!

Mistletoe Collector
by Adrien Barrere, 1874-1931,
from Wikipedia
According to some sources, mistletoe should only be collected on the sixth night of the sixth moon after the winter solstice--which would make it mid-June, by my calculations. Considering the holiness with which the summer solstice was regarded, this does make some sense, although the twigs would be pretty dry by the time of winter celebrations. The mistletoe was always cut carefully and was not allowed to touch the ground during the harvest, as that was thought to remove some of its magic. As far back as 77 AD, Pliny the Elder noted that Druids cut it with a golden sickle ,althoug later historians question Pliny's assertion.

Keeping the mistltoe from falling to the ground might explain why it was thought to be a cure for epilepsy: since epilepsy made people fall to the ground, and mistletoe not being allowed to touch the ground, the epileptic who carried it was protected from falling. The Druids called mistletoe "all-healer," considering it one of the most powerful of plants. Mistletoe that grew on oaks was considered the most powerful of all bit if the plant touched iron or steel, it lost its power too, just like touching the ground.

The White Goddess website tells this story of the Norse connection to mistletoe: "The Norse god Balder was the best loved of all the gods. His mother was Frigga, goddess of love and beauty. She loved her son so much that she wanted to make sure no harm would come to him. So she went through the world, securing promises from everything that sprang from the four elements--fire, water, air, and earth--that they would not harm her beloved Balder. Leave it to Loki, a sly, evil spirit, to find the loophole. The loophole was mistletoe. He made an arrow from its wood. To make the prank nastier, he took the arrow to Hoder, Balder's brother, who was blind. Guiding Holder's hand, Loki directed the arrow at Balder's heart, and he fell dead. Frigga's tears became the mistletoe's white berries. In the version of the story with a happy ending, Balder is restored to life, and Frigga is so grateful that she reverses the reputation of the offending plant--making it a symbol of love and promising to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it."

Saturday Evening Post cover 1900, from website 
Mistletoe was believed to ward off fires and disasters, and was hung in some homes year-round for this protective property. It could also, some believed, open locks, although how that would work, who knows today? Wearing a twig around the neck was a talisman to ward off evil spirits and witches. Mistletoe would sometimes be burnt, and the ashes carried in a little bag to bring good luck. But some believed that feeding your holiday bunch to your cows would bring a good year for your dairy. Farmers also believed in some areas of Britain that a good year for mistletoe meant a good year for corn (not our kind of corn; in England wheat was called corn, and in Scotland and Ireland corn meant oats.)

In Wales, mistletoe growing on hazel orash trees was believed to have treasure growing under its roots. This apparently came from an ancient legend that under these trees there lived a snake with a ruby inside its head. Over time the snake in this story was forgotten, but the treasure lived on. Interestingly, in early Christian churches mistletoe was banned from the church decorations, and this custom continues to this day in some places.

In the Victorian era, mistletoe really came to the fore as part of the holiday festivities. Washinton Irving captured the spirit of the Victorian Christmas in a few lines: "The Yule log and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe, with its white berries, hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids."

What to do with your mistletoe once the holidays are over? Don't throw it out! Leave it in your house until the coming year if you want your good luck and good fortune to continue all year.

The plant has found its way into poetry too:

by Walter de la Mare

Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Some one came, and kissed me there.

Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen—and kissed me there.

Some intriguing sources for more on mistletoe:
Encyclopedia of Superstitions by M. Radford, 1949.
Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles by Steve Roud, 2004.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

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