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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Mistletoe History Lesson

This is some interesting historical information about mistletoe researched by Eleanor Sullo. I thought that some of you would like to know about the sordid history of the practice of kissing under the mistletoe. Enjoy!


Learn about mistletoe's history; this notorious little plant has a fascinating and somewhat morbid background.

The Christmas custom of kissing underneath a branch of mistletoe goes back hundreds of years, certainly to the early 17th century. But legends about the curious plant go back even farther, even to the time of Christ and earlier. One legend has it that the wood of the cross of Christ was made from mistletoe, and supposedly for that reason the mistletoe plant has been doomed to live as a parasite, and is so classified today, making it condemned to live on the goodwill of other trees.

Shakespeare in Titus Andronicus called it "the baleful mistletoe," no doubt referring to the fact that in large quantities the waxy white berries are toxic. On the other hand, ancient Druids thought the plant had healing, even magical, powers. Back in Roman times in Britain, Pliny the Elder referred to the habit of Druid priests of cutting away mistletoe from oak trees where it attached itself, using golden sickles and spreading white cloth on the ground under the tree lest the trimmings touch the ground and risk losing their powers. The Druids elevated mistletoe to sacred powers, even using it in ceremonies of human sacrifice. Unlike other plants, mistletoe retained its fresh green color, and the evergreen therefore became a symbol of fertility. They also hung it over doorways to protect against evil.

Because of the Druids' use of mistletoe, Christians banned its use in their churches in England. Because mistletoe grows primarily on apple, lime, poplar and hawthorn trees in the midlands and up to and around York, it was a local favorite there long after the Druids were in decline. So in the famous minster at York, its use during the holiday season has always been retained.

In the York cathedral the minister placed the branch on the High Altar and procalimed "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." In the 21st century the Dean informally hung a bunch of mistletoe and holly from the High Altar at noon on Christmas Eve, although the custom was more general good will than intended as an encouragement of kissing in its presence.

Strictly speaking, kissing under the mistletoe was never to get out of hand, and often nearly did. To prevent abuses, the custom was defined as a man might steal a kiss under the hanging branch, but when he did, one berry was to be plucked from the plant and discarded. Once the berries were gone, the kissing charm of the mistletoe branch was spent, although that aspect of the custom is rarely recalled in these days. During the 19th century abuses of the kissing custom were prevalent, according to a verse written and called "The Mistletoe Bough." Interestingly, during uptight Victorian times, the custom came into full bloom!


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