Mistletoe demystified

Saturday 14 December 2013

A popular practice among the more lascivious of middle-aged middle managers at the office Christmas party is that of coping a kiss off any unsuspecting young temp who happens to stray too close under the tawdry sprig of mistletoe sellotaped to any convenient light-fitting, smoke alarm or door lintel. But how did such a pervy practice ever come about, especially during a season linked to chaste Christian thoughts and virgin births?

Like so many others, it is one of those traditions that is a hangover of our pre-Christian past. Both the Ancient Greeks and the druidic priests of the Celtic peoples revered the mistletoe, believing it to have supernatural healing properties. To the Romans the mistletoe was a symbol of peace and used as part of the Saturnalia celebrations.

Like other plants that remained green all year long, is was taken as a symbol of prosperity and fertility. Thoughts of fertility returning to the land were foremost in the minds of the early peoples who relied on the land for their immediate survival, especially in the bleak midwinter. In Norse mythology, the plant was sacred to Frigga (also known as Freya) who was the goddess of love.

In medieval times, mistletoe was fed to cattle to make sure they calved in the spring, and any woman hoping to fall pregnant would carry a sprig of it about her person. It was also considered an effective treatment for toothache, nervous disorders, epilepsy, heart disease and snakebites. It was even believed to bring quarrels to an end, and was a sure means of protection against witches and lightning strikes! (One strongly-held belief had it that mistletoe was formed when lightning struck a tree.)

The more modern practice of kissing under the mistletoe can be traced back to 18th century England. Young women who stood underneath the mistletoe could not refuse a kiss and if any unfortunate girl remained unkissed under the berries it was said that she would not marry at all during the coming year.

In one version of the custom, every time a young man stole a kiss from a girl he plucked a berry from the mistletoe bough. When all the berries had been plucked, the privilege ceased, as is recalled by this ditty:

Pick a berry off the mistletoe
For evry kiss that’s given.
When the berries have all gone,
There’s an end to the kissing.

Did you know...?The name 'mistletoe' comes from two Anglo-Saxon words, mistel, meaning ‘dung’ and tan, meaning ‘a small branch’. Birds, (usually the mistle thrush) feast on the mistletoe’s berries, then, having had their fill, they do what everyone does after a big meal – they void their bowels. The seeds excreted in this way germinate in the bark of the tree and a new mistletoe plant grows.

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You will find many other such facts about evergreens in my book What is Myrrh Anyway?- and its American counterpart Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas.


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