Mistletoe is one of those plants we associate with Christmas and the festive season along with holly and fir trees. Many of us love to decorate our homes with mistletoe in December. Plus, there’s the superstition that you must kiss if caught standing under the mistletoe.
We look at where the traditions of mistletoe come from and why it’s one of the most popular wintertime plants to bring into the home.
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The history of mistletoe
There is a story of Baldur, a god of peace. His goddess mother Frigg made him immune to anything harmful from came from the earth, air, water or fire.
However, mistletoe was not a product of those elements as it was a parasite feeding on trees.
Loki, another god and enemy of Baldur, fashioned an arrow from mistletoe wood. Loki game the arrow to a blind man called Hoder and guided him to aim it at Baldur. The arrow struck and killed Baldur.
The ancient Greeks considered mistletoe to be sacred referring to it as ‘oak sperm’. In Greek myth, the Trojan hero Aeneas used mistletoe to get to the underworld.
The Ancient Romans would hang mistletoe in doorways as part of the Saturnalia festival. It was considered to be a symbol of peace and understanding.
Saturnalia was a festival to honour the god Saturn held from 17th December to 23rd December. The festival included a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn along with feasts, gift-giving, gambling, and parties.
To the Celtic Druids mistletoe was one of the most sacred magical plants. As it grew amongst branches of sacred trees such as the oak but was not tethered to the ground, it was considered a plant of the sun. And as it grew from other trees it was believed to take on their essence and magical properties.
The Druids would cut the mistletoe from the sacred oak trees around the Winter Solstice. The ceremony would take place on the sixth night of the new moon following the winter solstice. A sheet would be spread underneath the tree to catch the plant as it was cut from the host. It was believed to be blasphemous to allow the plant to land on the ground. The plant would be divided amongst the community and hung in doors and windows to protect the home from evil spirits.
As mistletoe was thought to be the sperm of the gods, the white berries were used to create elixir’s to enhance fertility.
Mistletoe continued to be associated with peace throughout the Middle Ages. Legend has it that if enemies fighting came across mistletoe growing in the woods they would lay down their weapons and call a truce until the following day.
It is thought this may have been a precursor to the tradition of stealing a kiss under hanging mistletoe, as they were essentially asking to ‘kiss and makeup’.
The Anglo Saxons
The Anglo Saxons had a legend of Freya, the goddess of love, fertility and beauty. In the legend, men were told they must kiss any lady stood beneath the mistletoe. Many couples would kiss and agree to marriage under the mistletoe as a good luck charm.
During Tudor times mistletoe was incorporated into a Kissing Bough. It was a popular decoration of woven wooden hoops that were covered with evergreen branches and with a small effigy of an infant Jesus in the middle. The kissing boughs were placed near the doorway of a house and guests were embraced when they arrived.
During the Victorian age in England, it is thought the working classes continued the tradition that any man was allowed to kiss a woman standing beneath the mistletoe. And that it was bad luck to refuse a kiss.
Another tradition was that with each kiss a berry was plucked from the mistletoe and that the kissing had to stop once all the berries were removed.
York Minster’s Mistletoe Service
York Minster has a long connection with mistletoe thanks to its Druid past. Despite the early church associating Druids with sinners and banning mistletoe use in church all over the UK, York Minster persisted.
Mistletoe as long been seen as a sign of friendship. A Mistletoe Service was held in winter when York’s less savoury folk were invited to seek forgiveness under the mistletoe.
Holding up a branch of mistletoe, the priest would declare, “public and universal liberty, pardon and freedom of all sorts of inferior and wicked people at the minster gates, and the gates of the city, towards the four quarters of heaven.”
A sprig of mistletoe still decorates the high altar during the festive season as a reminder of ancient customs and the spirit of forgiveness.
Mistletoe in Music
Mistletoe and its kissing tradition have been featured in numerous festive songs.
Mistletoe comes from the name ‘mistletan’ which in turn is from Old English words of ‘mistle’ meaning dung, and ‘tan’ which is plural for stick. It means dung stick. Which, if you look up into the tree canopies in winter and see the white berries we guess that could be mistaken for bird poo.
What is mistletoe and where does it grow?
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on host trees such as hawthorn, poplar, lime, willow, blackthorn, and apple. Mistletoe generally prefers light and open spaces so you’ll find it in orchards, parkland, and gardens.
How do you identify mistletoe?
Mistletoe is an evergreen plant and presents all year round, however it is easier to identify mistletoe during the winter months of November to February when the host trees have bare branches. Look for clumps of green around trees. These clumps can be around 1 to 1.5 metres wide. Look out for the white sticky berries (these generally ripen around December) and stems with small oval leaves.
Is it illegal to pick mistletoe in the UK?
The law is a little complicated when it comes to foraging in the UK. In the first instance, you must check with the landowner whether foraging is permitted. And if so, you can only forage a small amount for personal use.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (WCA) states that it is an offence to uproot any plant from any land without permission from the landowner or any authorised person.
As always with foraging, only take a small amount and be sure to leave plenty for other people and animals. Do not do anything to damage the natural habitat.
Mistletoe branches can take up to 5 years to get to berry-producing size. You can grow your own if you like. You just need to have a host tree available and mistletoe berries harvested in spring (not from decorative mistletoe where the berries will be too immature).
Choose a tree that is at least 15 years old. Find a branch that is at least 10cm (4in) wide and high up with plenty of light. Remove the seeds from the berries and make a shallow cut in the bark to insert the seeds just under the flap, or into the crevice. Cover with some hessian and string to protect the seeds from birds.
Only 1 in 10 seeds germinate and you need both male and female plants to create berries, so it is recommended to sow a few seeds at each site.
Can mistletoe kill you?
Mistletoe is poisonous to both humans and pets. All parts of the plant is toxic, that includes the berries, stems and leaves.
It isn’t known to kill humans, but it can cause drowsiness, blurred vision, vomiting, and seizures.
As there are around 1500 different species of mistletoe around the world, there are different levels of toxicity to each one.