Ah, yes, yes, that parasitic member of the magnolia family, most commonly found in North America in a variety of trees, oaks in particular–partly evergreen, different from its European cousin in that the leaves are shorter, broader and more waxy, and the white berries grow in clusters of ten or more. The stuff of legend, and of a lot of fun during the Christmas season!
No one knows for sure where the name “mistletoe” comes from, although it may have roots in Old English. Oddly enough, though, the most familiar of all the Christmas customs involving mistletoe–standing under it and kissing, one kiss per berry, until the berries are all plucked off–is apparently of post eighteenth century origin.
Legend says that mistletoe was once gathered by Druids, the Celtic priesthood, using special curved knives made of gold. The mistletoe could not be allowed to touch the ground once it was cut. It was used as a decoration, like holly and other evergreens, and was the last of the Christmas greens to be taken down, on Candlemas Day (February 2, the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple in the Roman Catholic tradition; Groundhog Day to us hillbillies and rednecks). Mistletoe might also be left hanging as a deterrent to lightning and fire until it was replaced the next Christmas Eve.
Mistletoe figures into Norse mythology as the weapon with which the god Baldur the Beautiful was killed, an act which ultimately brought about the end of the world, which they called Ragnarok. Mistletoe plays a part in two stories from Joan Aiken’s (ed.) marvelous 1991 collection Haunting Christmas Tales; in both stories, mistletoe sends–once as the answer for why a ghost haunts, in the other as a weapon–ghosts to their eternal rest or damnation.
Mistletoe turns up in a gruesome legend, Italian in origin, about a young bride who, during her Christmas wedding celebrations, shuts herself into an oak chest while playing hide and seek and dies of suffocation; her body was found fifty years later, when all her kin were long dead. She had mistletoe in her headdress. In England, this legend, introduced by poet Samuel Rogers in 1823, has taken on a life of its own. It is told as a ghost story of several stately homes, the most famous of which is Bramshill House in Hampshire, where she is said to appear as a Lady in White, carrying a sprig of mistletoe in one hand. The legend also inspired a song, a play and several short stories with supernatural happenings.
I can’t help wondering, though: in TV commercials there’s the admonition/promise what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas? Just so happens I have a Tshirt, a gift from a friend several Christmases ago, that reads demurely What happens under the mistletoe STAYS under the mistletoe.
Which came first, the mistletoe admonition or Vegas?
I’m bettin’ on mistletoe. 😉