From the centre of the ceiling of this kitchen, old Wardle had just
suspended with his own hands a huge branch of mistletoe, and this same
branch of mistletoe instantaneously gave rise to a scene of general and most
delightful struggling and confusion; in the midst of which, Mr. Pickwick,
with a gallantry that would have done honour to a descendant of Lady
Tollimglower herself, took the old lady by the hand, led her beneath the
mystic branch, and saluted her in all courtesy and decorum.”
The Pickwick Papers
Sweet emblem of returning peace,
the heart’s full gush and love’s
Spirits in human fondness flow and greet the pearly mistletoe.
Oh! Happy tricksome time of mirth, giv’n to the stars of sky and earth!
May all the best of feeling know, the custom of the mistletoe.
Married and single, proud and free, yield to the season, trim with glee:
Time will not stay … he cheats us so …
A kiss? … ’tis gone … the
The poem above was written in December, 1826, and last line refers to the
custom of plucking a berry every time a kiss was stolen beneath the kissing
bough. Once the berries were gone, the kissing was over. By Victorian times,
the kissing bough was quite a complex construction. Five circles of wire
were joined together to form a globe, and evergreens were bound around the
wires. Apples were hung in the center and there could also be candles fixed.
A large bunch of mistletoe was hung beneath. It could also be decorated with
paper flowers. As there would be few flowers available in December in
England, paper flowers might have been popular Christmas decorations. The
mistletoe bough from 1794, however, is simply tied up and hung from the
Mistletoe or “the golden bough” was held sacred by both the Celtic Druids
and the Norseman. Once called “Allheal,” it was used in folk medicine to
cure many ills. North American Indians also used it for toothaches, measles
and dog bites. Mistletoe was the plant of peace in Scandinavian antiquity.
If enemies met by chance beneath it in a forest, they laid down their arms
and maintained a truce until the next day. In parts of England and Wales
farmers would give the Christmas bunch of mistletoe to the first cow that
calved in the New Year. This was thought to bring good luck to the entire
Vikings dating back to the eighth century believed that mistletoe had the
power to raise humans from the dead, relating to the resurrection of Balder,
the god of the summer sun. Balder had a dream that he was going to die. His
mother, Frigga, the goddess of love and beauty, was frantic about his dream
and said that if he died, everything on Earth would die. To ensure her son’s
safety, Frigga went to all of the elements (air, fire, water and earth, as
well as to all of the animals and plants) and asked them not to kill Balder.
In the same way a child would be heckled these days if his mother asked kids
not to pick on her child, Balder was teased and had things thrown at him. It
was thought that, because of his mother’s power, he was immune to harm.
Balder’s only enemy, Loki, found a loophole in Frigga’s request for her
son’s safety …Mistletoe. Mistletoe grows on the tree it attaches itself
to, and therefore has no roots of its own and could not be affected by
Frigga’s request. Loki made a poisoned dart with mistletoe, and tricked the
blind brother of Balder, Hoder, into shooting the arrow that killed Balder.
For three days, all the elements tried their hardest to bring Balder back to
life, but failed. Finally, the tears that Frigga cried for her dead son
changed the red mistletoe berries to white, raising Balder from the dead.
Frigga then reversed mistletoe’s bad reputation, and kissed everyone who
walked underneath it out of gratitude for getting her son back.
Another myth in mistletoe’s past comes from Britain. In the first century,
the Druids in Britain believed that mistletoe could perform miracles.
Mistletoe was used by the Druid priesthood in a very special ceremony held
five days after the New Moon following winter solstice. The Druid priests
would cut mistletoe from a holy oak tree with a golden sickle. The branches
had to be caught before the touched the ground. The priests then divided the
branches into many sprigs and distributed them to the people, who hung them
over doorways as protection against thunder, lightning and other evils.
Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek
festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites. Mistletoe
was believed to have the power of bestowing fertility, and the dung from
which the mistletoe was thought to arise was also said to have “life-giving”
power. In some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe is burned on the
twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never
Many believe that a couple who kisses underneath mistletoe will have good
luck, but a couple neglecting to perform the ritual will have bad luck.
Specifically, it is believed that a couple kissing under the mistletoe
ensure themselves of marriage and a long, happy life, while an unmarried
woman not kissed under the mistletoe will remain single for another year.
Maidens may place a sprig of the plant under their pillow at night in the
same manner a child places his or her lost tooth in anticipation of a visit
from the Tooth Fairy. Instead of exchanging teeth for money, however, the
sprig of Mistletoe allows women to dream of their Prince Charming. Burning a
mistletoe plant is also thought to foretell a woman’s marital bliss, or lack
thereof. A mistletoe that burns steadily prophesies a healthy marriage,
while fickle flames may doom a woman to an ill-suited partner.*
Create your own Mistletoe traditions by tying a piece of fresh Mistletoe
with bright ribbon and hanging it in your doorway; or, follow these
instructions to Jane Austen Giftshop!