by Jennifer Heath

I’ve been purging my study. Ruthlessly. On one of many overstuffed bookshelves, I came across A Celtic Book of Days, by Sarah Costley and Charles Kightly. Here is the entry for December 29:

“The mistletoe, or golden bough

“Called golden because of the yellow olour of the leaves and stalks and when kept. Bretons hung great bunches of it ahove their doors at the winter Solstice; by midsummer it as the colour of heaven’s fire.

“The Celts worshipped the oak, the strongest of the trees, as the great god; mistletoe, which grows on the oak is believed to be the hiding place of the life of the host. The Druids cut the parasite with gold, not iron, and ensured that it never touched the ground, thereby losing its healing properties. A specific for epilepsy, tumours, sterility, and witchcraft.

“The oak grove, In Irish, is doire, often ‘derry’ in place names.

“‘This is why I love Derry
it is so calm and bright
for it is all full of white angels
from one end to another.'”

The Book of Days does not tell us anything more about mistletoe, but Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs reveals that “the active ingredient of European mistletoe is a resin, viscin, [whose effect] is to temporarily benumb nerve impulses that would otherwise travel from a painful area or organ to the brain. Viscin first raises the blood pressure and then lowers it and speeds up the pulse. In this way, it interferes with the spasms of epilepsy.” European mistletoe has different qualities from the American, “which stimulate the heart and central nervous system … causing contractions in smooth mustcles like those of the uterus…and was thus used during childbirth.

Today we hang mistletoe in doorways to win kisses. “The traditional Victorian kissing ring was made from interlocking hoops festooned with colorful ribbon and a sprig of mistletoe suspended int he middle.” It gave license to stuffy Victorians to smooch without restraint.  In the Oxford Dictionary of Plantlore, by Roy Vickery, we’re told the kissing custom is unique to Britain (and now America, of course) and may have come about because of the Druid belief that a drink of mistletoe could impart fertility…”it was the feminine to the mastculine of the oak and at the winter Solstice symbolized new life.”

Mistletoe is not allowed inside a Christian church, because it is “a pagan plant.” Nevertheless, many a vicar hung a sprig in his home at Christmas. As one explained to the Daily Mirror in 1958, “I enjoy kissing pretty girls under it as much as anyone else.”