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The Legend of the Mistletoe

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

Charles Dickens

Sweet emblem of returning peace,

the heart’s full gush and love’s

release,

 

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

mistletoe.

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

ceiling.

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

herd.

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

marry.

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!

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