Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Mistletoe – 2

In Britain mistletoe, Viscum album, has long been associated with Christmas.  In 1656 William Coles recorded that mistletoe ‘is carryed many miles to set up in houses about Christmas time, when it is adorned with a white glistening berry’ [1].

120 years later it was noted:

‘Mistletoe grows very freely in the hawthorns [Crataegus] and other trees in Grimsthorpe Park, Lincolnshire, though it is not to be found elsewhere in the neighbourhood.  People have been accustomed to come from long distances, especially from London and Manchester, in order to gather the mistletoe, and have brought with them carts to carry off the spoil.  Besides thus committing a trespass, they disturbed the red deer in the park, and greatly damaged the trees.  Lady Willoughby de Eresby has, therefore, been compelled to protect her property by employing additional watchers in the park during the month before Christmas, in order to prevent the mistletoe from being interfered with and stolen.  During this past December 14 extra watchers were engaged’ [2].

However, according to the Guardian of 20 December 1972:

‘Covent Garden traders report that this year’s sales of mistletoe are the worst for years.  One trader said: “It’s a different sort of age.  When they strip off naked in Leicester Square you can see why.  They don’t need mistletoe today”.’

Seven years later The Times of  Tuesday 11 December 1979 reported:

‘Mistletoe … is available at greengrocers this Christmas at 10p a sprig, but it is imported in cauliflower crates from France and Belgium.                                 Mr Peter Heyes, of the fruit and vegetable wholesellers, the House of Heyes, expects to have handled 1,000 crates by Saturday, when as far as he is concerned this most seasonal of trades finishes.                                                  He says the best comes from Belgium, where the foliage is deeper green and the berries larger and more numerous.’

England’s main mistletoe market is at Tenbury Wells, in Worcestershire, where mistletoe collected from local apple orchards is auctioned in late November and early December.  This market, which was said to have been held for a century closed in the early 1970s, but it has since been revived, and, since 2004, supplemented by an annual Mistletoe Festival (see elsewhere on this website)

At one time, at least early in the twentieth century in northern England, the name mistletoe was also given to a form of Christmas decoration, rather than the plant.  Thus in January a 70-year-old correspondent from Corbridge, Northumberland wrote:

‘In addition to the Christmas tree, my grandfather made what he called a “mistletoe”.  This consisted of two wooden hoops (obtained from the grocer – taken from a butter cask …).  The two hoops were criss-crossed and tied in position, and coloured papers, greenery and small presents were added and all finished of with a bow, holly berries and mistletoe.’

It is said that the custom of kissing under the mistletoe is restricted is to, or  originated in, Britain; but see the main image here. On 20 December 1990 a Streatham, London, schoolgirl  reported:

‘For about the last week the girls and boys in my class [4th year, secondary school] have been chasing each other around with mistletoe. If a girl catches a boy she gives him a kiss.’

Inevitably, women or their husbands can be upset by what they regard as unwanted kisses.  Thus according to the Star of 21 January 1947:

‘A man’s objection to his wife being kissed under the mistletoe on Christmas Eve in a public house bar in Staines road, Hounslow, it was stated today at Brentford, ended in a fight among the customers, in which two women were injured and taken to hospital. Joseph Henry Webb, 32 … and Henry John Webb … were committed for trail at Middlesex Sessions.’

What should be done with mistletoe after Christmas has passed varies.

According to Theo Brown, writing about  Devon in 1955, in the Chudleigh district, some mistletoe should be kept hanging until the following Christmas, to prevent the house being struck by lightning, while in Ottery St Mary such a practice would ensure that the house would never be without bread [3].

Sometimes, as recorded from Eccleshill, Bradford, in 1962 [4] and Addingam Moorside, West Yorkshire in 1993, mistletoe should be kept for burning when pancakes are cooked on Shrove Tuesday.

1. W. Coles, The Art of Simpling, London, 1656, p.41.

2. Notes & Queries, 5 ser., vol.5, 1876, p.126.

3. T. Brown, ‘Fifty-second report on folklore’, Report  & Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science 87, 1955, p.355

4. D. Mckelvie [unpublished], ‘Some aspects of oral, social and material tradition in an industrial urban area’, thesis presented for the degree of PhD, University of Leeds,1963, p.176.

Adapted from R. Vickery, A Dictionary of Plant-lore, O.U.P, 1995.

Note added 12 December 2023:  ‘In Norse mythology a weapon made from mistletoe was used to kill Odin’s son Baldur and his mother Frigga’s tears became the white berries. She decreed that mistletoe should never again cause harm, and so it came to symbolize love rather than death.  Two people passing beneath it were to exchange a kiss in memory of Baldur’ [Peter Shirley, ‘Christmas in your garden’, Wildlife Gardening Forum E-Newsletter, December 2023, pp.15-17].

Images:  main image: card, published U.S.A., 1995; upper inset, Christmas lighting, Covent Garden, London, November 2017; second from top inset, mistletoe for sale at pinkpansy flower stall, outside Charing Cross station, City of Westminster, 25 November 2023;  third from top inset,  Christmas card received 1992; second from bottom inset, card publised U.K., purchased London, November 2023; bottom inset, card posted from Belfast to Rashakin, Co. Antrim, 24 December 1906.