The Magic of Mistletoe: Customs, Lore, and Superstitions of This Festive Favourite
"Dim uchellwydd, dim lwc!" is a Welsh proverb meaning "no mistletoe, no luck". Farmers believed that if mistletoe was scarce it would be a tough year. If there was plenty of mistletoe to harvest, it was believed that there would be a fine crop of corn.
Mistletoe (viscum album) is a familiar sight at Christmas time. It seems that from time immemorial, this semi-parasitic plant has amazed and inspired the people that live with it. Growing in bunches from the boughs of trees, mistletoe has sprouted customs and folklore, legends and ritual, and even to this day, some of these are observed.
These traditions followed settlers to the New World who wanted to take some of their festive traditions with them. Some attempts were made to introduce European mistletoe with a mixed level of success. In the late 19th Century, a large shipment mistletoe from England's Mistletoe Capital, Tenbury Wells, was sent to America, to promote the plant’s association with Christmas.
It is rare to find European mistletoe growing in the USA, and more often the local variety of this intriguing family is used as a substitute. Phoradendron leucarpum varies slightly from viscum album, and is native to North America and Mexico.
In this article, we will look at some of the customs and traditions associated with this wonderful plant.
Kissing Under the Mistletoe
Amongst the evergreens brought in to deck the halls over the festive period, mistletoe is usually found in a bunch hung from a doorway. Throughout Britain, it became popular to kiss beneath a sprig of this plant, and it is said that no lady should refuse a kiss beneath the mistletoe. There is one condition though; in exchange for a kiss, one berry must be removed from the sprig. Once all of the berries are gone, no more kisses could be stolen.
Whilst it is not clear when this practice first emerged, we can find some origins with an early English festive decoration that was known as the Kissing Bough, or Kissing Bunch.
Before the introduction of Christmas trees to our homes, these evergreen arrangements were a feature in the main room of a household and were kept near to the fireplace. They were made into the shape of a ball by fixing several wooden hoops together, and then covered with evergreens such as holly, ivy, fir, and rosemary. Hung from the bottom of this decoration would be a sprig of mistletoe.
Apples and other seasonal fruit would also feature in these arrangements, and some would even have candles or rosettes of coloured paper fixed to them. Accounts describe how the candles would be lit on Christmas Eve on 24th December, and then again each night until Twelfth Night on 6th January.
It is thought that Kissing Boughs have been a feature in houses from the 12th Century onwards, but slowly fell out of favour with the introduction of Christmas trees. The mistletoe however, remained. It seems that people were not overly keen on losing the tradition of stealing a festive kiss!
The Maiden's Dream
It is said that if a sprig of mistletoe from the local church is placed beneath the pillow of a maiden, she will dream of her future husband. This superstition seems to have evolved from a much older religious rite.
Sir James George Frazer, in his famous work "The Golden Bough" wrote,
"At Pulverbatch, in Shropshire, it was believed within living memory that the oak-tree blooms on Midsummer Eve and the blossom withers before daylight. A maiden who wishes to know her lot in marriage should spread a white cloth under the tree at night, and in the morning she will find a little dust, which is all that remains of the flower. She should place the pinch of dust under her pillow, and then her future husband will appear to her in her dreams. This fleeting bloom of the oak, if I am right, was probably the mistletoe in its character of the Golden Bough.
The conjecture is confirmed by the observation that in Wales a real sprig of mistletoe gathered on Midsummer Eve is similarly placed under the pillow to induce prophetic dreams; and further the mode of catching the imaginary bloom of the oak in a white cloth is exactly that which was employed by the Druids to catch the real mistletoe when it dropped from the bough of the oak, severed by the golden sickle.
As Shropshire borders on Wales, the belief that the oak blooms on Midsummer Eve may be Welsh in its immediate origin, though probably the belief is a fragment of the primitive Aryan creed." 
Gathering in the Greens
The appearance of mistletoe in the home receives a mention in botanist William Cole’s “The Art of Simpling, or an Introduction to the Knowledge and Gathering of Plants”, written in 1656. He described how the plant was “carried many miles, before being set up in houses about Christmas time”. 
A custom in Wales that would ensure luck for the dairies would be to bring a branch of mistletoe to the first cow that gave birth to a calf after the first hour of the New Year; and in rural districts of Wales, where mistletoe abounded, there was always a profusion of it in the farmhouses.
Evergreens have been used for centuries, not only for their festive cheer, but also for their perceived magical virtues. When all was dead and sleeping in winter, the vitality of these plants demanded they be venerated. Some cultures saw these plants as symbolising immortality; life defiant in a time of darkness and death. Mistletoe was seen as a magical plant that placed no root in the ground, harbouring the spirit of the king of the woods; the mighty oak, during the bleak winter months.
It was harvested with care, and carried to the household. At no time was it allowed to touch the ground. This was considered by some to be bad luck, and those that used the plant for herbal medicine believed that it's virtues would be depleted. Frazer explained:
"We can therefore understand why it has been a rule both of ancient and of modern folk-medicine that the mistletoe should not be allowed to touch the ground; were it to touch the ground, its healing virtue would be gone. This may be a survival of the old superstition that the plant in which the life of the sacred tree was concentrated should not be exposed to the risk incurred by contact with the earth." 
Besides being used in garlands and arrangements such as the kissing bough, mistletoe also appears in the Christmas wreath. This decoration is hung on doorways to greet visitors during the festive period. These greens don't just provide cheer; to our ancestors they served a very important purpose in keeping malevolent spirits from entering the home. Whilst we now celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas, a succession of days from Yule until 6th January was known in Germany as Rauhnacht, meaning "Raw Nights". It was believed that wayward malevolent spirits were abound on these nights, chased by Wodan and his wild hunt. To prevent these spirits entering the home, the doorway was guarded by a protective circle of sacred plants. Holly, ivy, mistletoe, and other evergreens were a popular choice. People unwittingly still use this powerful ward to this day .
Protector of the Home
In some parts of Britain, mistletoe and any other festive greens would need to be taken down on Twelfth Night on 6th January. Elsewhere the entire arrangement would be kept until the following year as it was believed to protect the home from lightning and fire.  A sprig of mistletoe was often kept outside, suspended from the building that it was meant to protect, for twelve whole months, until replaced again the following Christmas.
Perhaps this is a relic of older times when the oak trees upon which the most prized mistletoe grew were seen as sacred to Donar and Thor, gods of thunder to the Anglo-Saxons and Norsemen respectively. In the 13th Century manuscript “Prose Edda”, Baldr, son of the god Odin is slain by his brother Hodr who was tricked by the mischievous Loki. Knowing that mistletoe was the only material that could harm Baldr, Loki guided Hodr’s hand in drawing his bow and shooting an arrow of mistletoe at his brother’s heart . In the “Gesta Danorum”, also from the 13th Century, Hodr and Baldr are described as fighting a feud over a love rivalry. Hodr slays Baldr with a sword named “Mistilteinn” which is Old Norse for mistletoe .
Jupiter and Zeus too were associated with the oak trees and lightning . The plant also has importance in the old Roman midwinter festival of Saturnalia, where it is symbolic of fertility. It was of great importance to the Druids, and Pliny the Elder described in the 1st Century how the mistletoe was ritually harvested from oak groves at midwinter.
Lightning strikes and fires were much a more serious threat to households in times past. Stone and brick were not used commonly, with roofs covered with reed or straw thatch. A stray spark from the cooking range could quite quickly cause problems if left untended to, and without our modern knowledge of earthing there was nothing to protect a building if struck by lightning. It was down to luck or the will of the gods.
Whatever the purpose of this mystical plant, this firm festive favourite does not show any sign of falling out of favour any time soon.
"The Mistletoe Bough" from the 19th century, tells the tale of a bride that was lost during games one Christmas. You can read the lyrics here. Be warned, it is not a happy carol!
This article specifically looks at the folklore, customs, and superstitions of mistletoe. Further articles are in the works that look at medicinal uses, and the auctions among other things.
In this series:
- The Tenbury Mistletoe Festival & National Mistletoe Day; 1st December is officially National Mistletoe Day in the UK. The Tenbury Mistletoe Festival is held on the first weekend in December, in "England's Mistletoe Capital". Learn about the Festival and the legacy of mistletoe in this article.
 Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough - ISBN - 978-1108047432
 William Coles, The Art of Simpling, or an Introduction to the Knowledge and Gathering of Plants - ISBN - 978-1162628738
 Christian Rätsch, Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide - ISBN - 978-1594770920
 Susan Drury, Folklore Magazine, issue 98 (1987)
 Snorri Sturluson, Prose Edda - ISBN - 978-0140447552
 Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum - ISBN - 978-0859915021
 Rendel Harris, The Ascent of Olympus - ISBN - 978-1116983579
With thanks to Karen Cater and Hedingham Fair (go check out their webpage, they have some lovely art on there for sale!), and Gillian Smith.
© 2014 Pollyanna Jones