“It’s supposed to be jolly, with mistletoe and holly… and other things ending in olly.” Terry Pratchett
Mistletoe, the thief of trees, cannot live on its own much like love, matchmaker; partners to keep an environment together, forest savior.
Historically mistletoe is a plant of peace, friendship, and in antiquity goodwill. If enemies met beneath it in a forest, usually a grove of oaks, arms were laid down and truce called until the next day. Strabo, Greek geographer and philosopher in the 1st century CE recorded such a meeting of the Galatin Celts, in Drunemeton in today’s modern Turkey. Warring spouses would kiss and make-up.
From the Old English/Anglo-Saxon misteltãn where tan signifies twig and mistel from mist. Mistl, means different, from its being unlike its host. Mist in old Dutch meant birdlime. Birds eat the berries and then their droppings fall to tree branches where they will sprout in a sticky substance called visco/viscin. In the 14th century mistletoe was called mystyldene and Lignum crucis. The term for modern day modern mistletoe evolved from these words.
Kissing boughs are a winter ornament made famous in England under the Tudor reign. First documented in the 16th century they initially hung in doorways welcoming guests into the home. Boughs were made of garland covering ash or willow branches in the shape of a double hoop or crown. Along with mistletoe, greenery, ribbons, ivy and holly, candles and red apples completed a joyous and cheery site of nature and warmth. The candles would be lit on Christmas Eve every night until Twelfth Night or Epiphany. At which point the boughs were removed and burned lest they bring bad luck to the house.
The 18th century saw a migration of boughs to the dance floor where it hung in the middle of the room. Dancers passing under the bough hoped to steal or encourage a kiss. Single women found under the bough or a sprig of mistletoe were to be kissed. If they were not, they would not marry for a year. The same was true for men. Burning the bough on Twelfth Night – took all that silliness away.
If a couple in love exchanged a kiss under the mistletoe, it was a promise to marry. Another version predicted happiness and a long life. Today, kisses can be exchanged under the mistletoe any time during the holiday season.
Mistletoe bestowed life and fertility, a protection against poison, and an acted as an aphrodisiac. The Anglo-Saxons connected kissing under the mistletoe to the legend of Freya or Frigga in her role as Goddess of Love, Beauty and Fertility. She is the mother of Balder, the God of the Summer Sun. In a dream Balder saw his life end which would cause all life on earth to end. Freya in her fear went to the elements air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant asking for their assistance in keeping Balder safe. But Loki in his mischievousness knew one plant had not been asked, the mistletoe.
The mistletoe grows only above the ground. Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe then gave to the blind God of Winter, Hoder. He shot it striking Balder dead. The sky paled and all things in earth and heaven wept for the Sun God. For three days each element tried to bring Balder back to life. Freya restored her son and her tears turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant. In her joy, Freya kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree that who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall them, only a kiss, a token of love.
Mistletoe was present in many ancient and winter festivals. The Roman festival Saturnalia was a way to celebrate the Saturn, the God of Agriculture and Time. This festival evolved from a one-day celebration to a week. Under the Julian calendar the end date was December 25th, the winter solstice. This festival ended with gift giving. The timing, festivities and use of greenery have evolved into the Christmas season.
Pliny the Elder describes Saturnalia on the sixth day of the moon, the chief druid would climb a designated oak tree and use a golden sickle to cut boughs of mistletoe. The chief druid than gave branches to a youth who would spread the news of the New Year.
Mistletoe berries are white and important in fertility rites. The Greeks use mistletoe in marriage ceremonies. An evergreen plant, mistletoe is thought to take custody of the soul of its oak host in the winter. This behavior led to the belief that when mistletoe is removed the power of the oak would go with it and will give strength to the sprig hung over doorways as protection against thunder, lighting, and witchcraft.
Mistletoe is actually hemi-parasitic. In its youth it undergoes photosynthesis to survive. Once mature enough, mistletoe will completely survive on the host for its nutritional needs. As they grow, thick rounded masses of witches’ brooms can reach several feet and weigh 50 pounds or more.
Mistletoe as a species is over 30 million years old and their origins are unknown. An interesting plant found everywhere even the desert. There are over 1,000 species in the Order Santalaceae. Two Families Loranthaceae and Viscaceae. The genera Viscum and Nuytsia. Viscum and visco reference the sticky substance the berries emit so they can stay with the host and grow. The oldest plant can be found in Western Australia, called Nuytsia floribunda, the Christmas Tree with its showy orange flowers create a firestick image against the blue sky. Nuytsia floribunda belongs to the oldest lineage of mistletoe, long before they became shrubs or witches brooms. The stems are so soft, they can be peel in layers like an onion leading to the gift of being fire sensitive and an indicator of the condition of the ecosystem.
There are two types of mistletoe used in Christmas decorations. The European variety Viscum album with its yellow flowers. The North American native, Phoradendron flavescens found from New Jersey to Florida. Phoradendron is Greek for tree thief.
Australian research has found this tree thief to be a keystone species. Where present mistletoe aids into a larger diversity of animals and plants and a healthier ecosystem. The berries are a main food source for birds and nesting. The plant supports canopy development with its leaf litter supporting life on the forest floor.
Mistletoe as Medicine
The white berries of mistletoe are described as album. The berries and leaves are poisonous and yet have been used in homeopathic solutions for centuries. One of the names the Druids gave mistletoe is All Heal because it seemed to heal all aliments.
Mistletoe berries fall from the sky and were a gift as long as they did not touch the ground. The seeds were used to treat some forms of epilepsy, known as the falling sickness. To mimic the falling from the sky, arrows or rocks were used to make the berries fall.
The whole plant is being studied to treat cancer, immune system and female reproductive disorders. Please do your research before experimenting with mistletoe.
I would like to end this blog with a delightful song about mistletoe. From the group Misty River, Don’t Take Down the Mistletoe.
Note: Mistletoe is quite an interesting plant. If this plant has caught your attention, I encourage you to look at the first two references.
Australia’s giant parasitic Christmas tree, Tim Low, May 15, 2017
The Mistletoe Pages, Johnathan Briggs – All things mistletoe
Images in order of presentation are credited to these folks. Let them know you like their photos.
Leaf & Limb, 4 Fascinating Facts About Mistletoe
Mistletoe: Good for More Than Free Kisses, Juanita Evans, 2018
Mistletoe its history, meaning and traditions, The Holiday Spot
Mistletoe, Myths and Medicines, Backyard Gardner
The White Goddess, Mistletoe
The Poison Garden, Mistletoe
The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer, Wordsworth Editions, 1993
Longmans Dictionary of the English Language, Penguin Book Ltd, 1991
A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Christina Hole, Helicon Publishing Ltd, 1995
The White Goddess, Robert Graves, Faber and Faber, 1997
“With the ebb, With the flow” by Camina Gadelica
“As it was,
As it is,
As it shall be
With the ebb,
Walk the flow.”
The study of trees for Yuletide and Christmas are remarkable. Modern day Christmas has evolved from many festivities and celebrations. Solstice celebrations represent death, birth, and new beginnings. The original festivals celebrated the natural environment and how the light change. Winter Solstice is the time when The Light begins its return in the northern hemisphere. The sun as a great wheel of fire rolls away from the earth creating darkness. At the solstice it rolls back toward the earth creating more light on its annual journey.
Ra, the Sun God of Egypt recovers from his seasonal illness. His power passes through the blazing disk in his crown. Rushes from the palm (an evergreen tree) filled homes symbolizing the triumph of life over death. Romans marked the solstice by honoring Saturn, the God of Agriculture. The early festival of Saturnalia used evergreens branches of firs, holm oaks, or hollies brought inside to mimic nature. They wore garlands of greens in the streets passing on wishes of prosperity and good will.
The season of Yule started with the Germanic tribes who celebrated over a two-month period. Christianity in its process of conversion,control and calendars brought Christmas,Twelfth Night, New Year’s, and Winter Solstice together. For example, January 6th was the original Christmas Day in England. A celebration that started on December 24th and ended on the Twelfth night, January 5th. The Julian Calendar (35 BC) transition to the Gregorian Calendar (1582) creating changes to the celebration dates. The Julian Calendar runs 13 days behind the Gregorian Calendar and is still in used for winter holiday festivities.
Evergreen trees are those that keep their leaves year-round and flourish during the Winter and Christmas festivities. The varieties are many. In the northern hemisphere, evergreen trees stand for life, rebirth, and stamina. The branches of the Yew, Taxus, when brought inside to represent fertility and immortally. Balder, the Viking Sun God enjoyed the company of evergreens. They offer protection in winter against the coldest day. Some cultures believe evil spirits are at their strongest during this time.
Pines(Pinus) are one of the favorites trees for winter celebrations. Brought inside in Chinese and Western homes, their representation of long-life and prosperity make them cherished additions to the season. The Druids in Scotland used the Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris, to celebrate the winter solstice. Celts expressed what they wished for in the coming year. Fruits for a successful harvest, love charms for happiness, nuts for fertility, and coins for wealth adorn the trees.
Christianity has a special tie to pines. Jesus and his family were fleeing to Egypt. Many plants offer to hide them. Just as Herod’s soldiers passed by an old pine (Pinus pinea, Umbrella Pine ) gave them shelter in its inner trunk and folded its branches around them. Jesus blessed the pine leaving an imprint of his hand within the pine cones. Cut the cone lengthwise to see his print.
Firs (Abies) are a symbol of springtime and immortality. They are the first Christmas trees dating back to 1500 years ago in northern Europe and the first to be displayed inside homes. Their cones grow upright reflecting candle light. Fir branches intertwine make great wreaths or mantle decorations. They are the first trees found hanging upside down from ceilings or chandeliers. Crushing the firs’ leaves gives us that wonderful fragrance associated with the winter season. All parts of fir trees are helpful to humans. The oil creates an antiseptic that kills airborne germs and bacteria and supports respiratory health. The wood is excellent firewood. They reach for the sky while growing. The species used during the winter celebrations are Balsam Fir, Abies balsamea, Fraser Fir, Abies fraseri,Grand Fir, Abies grandis, Noble Fir,Abies procera, and Silver Fir, Abies spp.
Apple trees, in modern day, play an unknown and huge role in yuletide and winter solstice festivals. The round shape of apples represents a turning wheel. The wheel in turn represents earth. At the winter solstice the wheel turns toward the sun. If shining through the branches on December 25th there would be a healthy crop the following summer.
Deciduous trees, those that lose their leaves. The hawthorn tree at Glastonbury Tor in England is famous as a Christmas tree because of Joseph of Arimathea. He arrived at Worral Hill in 597 A.D. carrying two sacred vessels said to contain the blood and sweat of Jesus. Thrusting his staff into the ground, it sprouted and grew into a thorn tree. The Glastonbury Thorn (Crataegus monogyna ‘Biflora’)flowers twice a year in winter and spring, just around Christmas and Easter.
Blooming about the same time and a cousin of the hawthorn is the Blackthorn tree, Prunus spinosa. Folklore tells us this tree will bloom when cold is coming. Blackthorn symbolizes the body and spirit and how death follows rebirth. One of the guardians of winter in the druid practices. Villagers burned crowns woven with mistletoe in the New Year’s fire. The ashes bring luck in the coming year and providing nutrients for next year’s crop. Sloe berries of the blackthorn are the main ingredient in the Sloe Gin drink.
Use these guidelines when harvesting apples. Leave three apples on each tree for the fairies. The Hesperides Nymphs in Greek mythology will bless you by managing good pollination for the next year’s crop. When eating apples stored through the winter always keep enough to make an apple pie for the sheep shearers in May.
Hanging apples from the orchard transition to an indoor ritual. Local practices hung apples as ornaments on trees. Christianity used this practice to help convert pagans. The English started the custom of adding apples and evergreens to the bough along with ribbons,baubles, and mistletoe. The bough is hung under doorways and became the present-day custom of kissing under the mistletoe.
Twelfth Night ended with Wassailing, an older festival celebrating apples. Wassail itself is a hard cider warmed with spices over a small fire. Whole apples would burst and produce a white foam over the liquid. The celebration started in Wales and then spread throughout Britain and Ireland. The tree-spirit known as The Apple Tree Man needed to wake from his sleep. He protected the local people against bad health, misfortune and ensured a good harvest the following year. Villagers serenaded him with chants, rhymes, or speeches that praised his gifts of the current year and fruitfulness from earlier years. They struck the trunk and any branches with sticks until the sap flowed, signaling he was awake. Toasted bread soaked in Wassail were tossed or place in the forks of the branches or hollows of the tree. This offering frightens away evil spirits lurking in the branches. Any remaining liquid spread over the roots and trunks to honor its blessings.
After the Wassailing, villagers returned to their homes to enjoy all things apple. They layered cakes and baked apples with sugar in a special wassail bowl with twelve handles. Warm spiced beer covered the mixture. On New Year’s Day the bowl traveled to neighbors wishing them good health and prosperity for the upcoming year. Stories,songs, and dances were part of the festivities.
The history of the Yule log goes back to the Iron Age in Europe. A tree was picked to stand for the solstice and the end of the winter season. When lit the yule log cleanses last year’s energy and ushers in spring. Folklore tells us that each variety of yule log has its own magic. Yule logs represent the god and goddess being reunited. The traditional trees, oak (masculine)brought healing, strength and wisdom or the ash (masculine) brought protection,prosperity, and health. To honor the log, decorations of holly, mistletoe, pine-cones, ivy, and evergreens covered its length.
Other trees represented yule logs. Aspen (masculine) invoked understanding of the grand design of life; birch (feminine) brings new beginnings; holly(masculine) inspired visions and revealed past lives; pine signified prosperity and growth and the willow (feminine) invoked the Goddess to achieve desires. Each tree produced a great fire creating ashes that were spread on the soil reinvigorating it for the next year’s growing season. Spreading them after Christmas Day brought luck your way. Ashes protected against evil and lighting. Wearing a touch from the yule log when in a storm.
Hazelnuts are a favorite food during the holidays. Found in chocolate and hazelnut butter and a Christmas delicacy made by Ferrero Rocher. (side note – Palm Oil is used in the making of this holiday chocolate. The company is engaged in responsible sustainability for its product. Which makes Palm trees a Winter Holiday Tree.)
Other practices of the season included carrying hawthorn or cherry branches inside to flower. Cherries celebrated The Feast of St. Barbara December 4th. She was the daughter of a wealthy Greek merchant who converted to Christianity against her father’s wishes.
A long history of use in the winter celebrations, holly branches and Ivy provide the green and red in many homes. Represented in the well-known song, The Holly & The Ivy. Holly is masculine and provides protection. Ivy is feminine and represent fidelity and love. Together holly and ivy are another representation of the god and goddess uniting during this time of year.
The first recorded display of a decorated Christmas Tree was in 1510, Riga, Latvia. By the 1700’s, the tradition of celebrating the holidays with a decorated tree spread throughout Europe. On Greek islands villagers would create wreaths of myrtle, olive, and orange leaves. Or carry poles of young pears,cheese and candles to households sharing its bounty.
Hessian(German) mercenaries brought the tradition to the United States during the Revolutionary War. In 1804, soldiers stationed at Fort Dearborn, Michigan used evergreen trees in their barracks. From North Dakota is the story of the cedar tree. One tree is planted next to the medicine lodge and decorated with moccasins, shawls, or other treasures to celebrate the season. Members of the tribes would share the during summer to fall. President Franklin Pierce in 1856 brought the Christmas Tree tradition to the White House.