Mistletoe, Christmas, the Winter Solstice and the Druids

Mistletoe is inextricably linked with Christmas – ‘kissing under the mistletoe’ has become an almost universal tradition. But how has this poisonous and parasitic plant achieved such a legendary status? Like many  Christian traditions they have their ancestry in our Pagan / Celtic / Druid past – I have written before about how the magical, mystical hare changed into the Easter bunny – see here.

Here is the story of mistletoe.

Pliny the Elder in the first century AD describes how the Druids – the religious order of the Celts (or Gauls as he called them) would seek out mistletoe growing on an oak. They would then climb the tree, cut down the mistletoe, sacrifice two white bulls and then make an elixir from the white berries to cure infertility and effects of poison. This account is interesting in that today mistletoe grows predominantly on apple trees, limes and poplars. I have never seen a mistletoe growing on oak.

The story continues and I can do no better than quote the website – Mistletoe – Mythology and Folklore – The White Goddess. 

“The ancient Druids believed mistletoe to be an indicator of great sacredness. The winter solstice, called ‘Alban Arthan’ by the Druids, was according to Bardic Tradition, the time when the Chief Druid would cut the sacred mistletoe from the Oak. The mistletoe is cut using a golden sickle on the sixth night of the new moon after the winter solstice. A cloth held below the tree by other members of the order to catch the spigs of mistletoe as they fell, as it was believed that it would have profaned the mistletoe to fall upon the ground. He would then divide the branches into many sprigs and distributed them to the people, who hung them over doorways as protection against thunder, lightning and other evils.

The Druids are thought to have believed that the berries of the mistletoe represented the sperm of the Gods. When pressed, a semen like substance issues from the white berries. Mistletoe was considered a magical aphrodisiac. Girls standing under a sprig of mistletoe were asking for a bit more than a kiss, it seems.

The plant in old folklore is called Allheal, used in folk medicine to cure many ills, and indeed the Druids considered the mistletoe to be a sacred plant and believed it had miraculous properties which could cure illnesses, serve as an antidote against poisons, ensure fertility and protect against the ill effects of witchcraft. When taken as a form of diluted tea, it was thought as a curative for everything from infertility to epilepsy. (WARNING, this plant is highly toxic when ingested. You should seek expert advice before using Mistletoe in any form.)

This account links the mistletoe to the Winter Solstice (yesterday) and therefore pretty close to Christmas and gives a hint about where the kissing bit came from! You can see how 21st  century Druids view mistletoe here.

Rather like in the mystical hare/Easter bunny story the Christian generation tweaked things around – the Anglo-Saxon (5th century + AD) word mistletoe is derived from mistle means twig or branch (thus mistle thrush) and toe means dung. This maybe relates to the fact that the berries are poisonous to people or may hark back to the aphrodisiac / sperm like properties that the druids considered.

Mistletoe isn’t very common in Devon but there is a good population at Parke in Bovey Tracey. It grows in the orchard on some of the apple trees and in the Parkland on lime trees and poplars.

Mistletoe 1
A big colony of mistletoe on a common lime in the Parkland at Parke

Mistletoe 2A clump of mistletoe on a poplar at Parke

If you want to know more about mistletoe and its biology and ecology this is a good place to go.

And if you know of any mistletoe growing on oak – I would be interested to know but I suggest you avoid the place on the sixth night of the new moon after the winter solstice…….

 

2 thoughts on “Mistletoe, Christmas, the Winter Solstice and the Druids

  1. “the Anglo-Saxon (5th century + AD) word mistletoe is derived from mistle means twig or branch (thus mistle thrush) and toe means dung”

    I didn’t know toe translated as dung in Anglo Saxon & I’m wondering if it’s in fact more literal.
    There is no doubt most mistletoe plants on trees (if not all) germinate from bird droppings ie. bird dung?

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