"The trees are bare, wild flies the snow,
Hearths are glowing, hearts are merry -
High in the air is the Mistletoe,
Over the door is the Holly Berry.
Never have care how the winds may blow,
Never confess the revel grows weary -
Yule is the time of the Mistletoe,
Yule is the time of the Holly Berry."
William Stanley Braithwaite
My very recent trip to the Christmas Markets of Germany gave me my first encounter with boughs of mistletoe high in the trees along the Rhine River. This seasonal sight was repeated often, and I also found the Christmas Markets filled with all types of greens for sale, including mistletoe. We so often find dried little bunches of this herb for sale around the holidays, and it is sad looking compared to the glorious fresh round masses with the firm round berries that were available in Germany.
The mistletoe of Europe is Viscum album, while here in the US our mistletoe is Phoradendron serotinum. All types are known to be poisonous, causing vomiting, etc. Mistletoe leaves and twigs have been used in Germany and other parts of Europe for circulatory and respiratory problems. The plant is a hemi-parasite, which means that it is partially parasitic to the tree in which it grows. It uses the host plant for water and mineral nutrients, but also has evergreen leaves that can utilize the process of photosynthesis. It was considered magical, since it grew seemingly out of the air. However, it was known that birds were the means by which it sprouted - once a bird ate the berries, their droppings would attach to a tree branch. The sticky coating of the seeds allowed the plant enough time to germinate and begin the process of sending its roots deep into the tree branch, ensuring it would take hold and thrive. The word "mistletoe" comes from "mistel" or dung, and "tan" or twig - thus dung-on-a-twig.
It is interesting to note that mistletoe, originally thought to be a pest, is really a keystone species. This means that it is an organism which has a profound effect in the area it grows, and its removal would cause an inbalance in the ecosystem. A large array of animals use it for food, and it is also a nesting area for owls and murrelets. It can (if there are enough boughs in a tree) actually kill a tree, though this is usually not the case. Death of the tree would cause the demise of the mistletoe.
Pliny the Elder, a naturalist in Roman times, gave an account of the Druidic ritual of collecting the "golden bough." The Druids preferred to obtain mistletoe from an oak tree - considering it the "soul" of the oak. It was best harvested at the Winter Solstice, and it was used to make a potion to make sterile animals fertile and as an antidote to poison. A feast was first held under the oak containing the mistletoe, and two young, white bulls were brought to the site. A priest, dressed in white robes, would climb the tree and cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle. The misteltoe was not allowed to touch the ground, and the bulls were sacrificed as an offering.
Different customs surrounding mistletoe abound. In Germany, it was used to adorn doorways of home and barn, in order to ward off witches. In the 18th century, it was begun to be used as a Christmas decoration, protecting the house from fire and lightning. The Scandinavians believed it was a plant of peace, and warring factions would have a truce where mistletoe was growing. It is thought that the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from this practice. Originally, any girl caught under the mistletoe must be kissed, or she would remain unmarried for the following year. A berry was to be plucked from the mistletoe for each kiss, and when there were no more, the kissing ceased.
Mistletoe, as well as other greens, have become such a part of our decorating for the holidays. These pagan rituals have become intertwined with our own modern day celebrations, and most of us have no idea of the lore and legends behind our traditions. The blending of the ancient practices and the modern world is to me fascinating - the realization that there is a link between our ancestors and the present day, and that there are long-held beliefs behind even the simple customs we experience in our lives today.
Happy Holly Days!
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