As a teenager, I used
to read Asterix the Gaul comics and
absolutely loved them. That may not seem
very relevant to this blog, but actually, I learned a lot about the Romans from
them and even some Latin! It was also
the first time I heard about mistletoe, which was rare in Sweden, and the
authors made it sound like something magical.
Indeed, in the stories the village druid, Getafix, uses it as a special
ingredient for a secret magic potion and cuts it with a sacred golden sickle,
which all seemed wonderful to me!
When I moved to
England, mistletoe seemed to be readily available to buy in shops around
Christmas-time, but I never thought about where it came from or how it
grew. I somehow assumed it was grown
commercially somewhere and harvested for sale to people wanting somewhere to
smooch at Christmas. I was therefore
amazed to find it in our garden when we moved to the country – not just a
little bit, but huge great balls of the stuff, hung about the trees. Without my glasses on, I’d taken it to be
So where does the
notion of kissing underneath it come from?
No one seems quite sure.
First of all, there
are lots of different varieties of this plant, but the one we usually refer to
is known as the European White-Berried Mistletoe, Viscum Album. Mistletoe is
mentioned in the Norse sagas, but as a murder weapon only (!), and the Celts
apparently used it as a remedy for various things (it is poisonous, so they
would have had to be very careful).
However, they also considered it a fertility symbol, which could explain
the kissing. (And since it is an
evergreen plant, it continues to be fruitful while trees like oak and ash lose
their leaves, hence it’s still ‘fertile’.)
And the shape of the mistletoe, its leaves and juicy berries, are
sometimes viewed as a slightly ‘sexual’.
By the 16th
century, kissing under mistletoe seems to have been a popular custom in
England, so its association with fertility must have continued in people’s
memories. The tradition could also come
from Scandinavia, where there are lots of obscure customs to do with Christmas
and the run-up to Yuletide (or jul as
we say). It is definitely considered a
‘pagan’ plant and is often banned from being used as church decorations,
perhaps because it was associated with pre-Christian mid-winter solstice rites.
In continental Europe
it is said to bring peace and luck, as well as in Greek and Roman legend. Perhaps this was where the Asterix creators’
view of mistletoe came from? Ancient
Celtic druids are supposed to have used and revered the plant, according to
tradition, but there isn’t really any evidence of this at all. Pliny the Elder wrote about druids, saying
they worshipped mistletoe because it grew on their sacred trees, especially
oak. In actual fact, mistletoe seldom
grows on oak trees, so this may not be very accurate.
It also happens to be
the county flower of Herefordshire, where I now live – no wonder I found so
much of it in my garden! And a town on
the Herefordshire/ Worcestershire border, Tenbury Wells, have a National
Mistletoe Day and a Mistletoe Festival at the beginning of December. I’ve missed it this year, but I will
definitely go next year!
everyone and I hope you’ve stocked up on mistletoe!
Labels: Christmas, Mistletoe, tradition, Yuletide