Mistletoe – beliefs and botanical details (1842)

This is an in-depth article about mistletoe from The Saturday Magazine (John William Parker, 1842) includes botanical information The full magazine is available online at Google Books.

Christmas and Pagan beliefs About MistletoeThe Mistletoe (Viscum album.)

In a previous notice of vegetable parasites, those curious annual plants called dodder, formed the subject of description: the remaining British parasite is the Misletoe, or Mistletoe, which receives the Latin name of viscum, from vescus, bird-lime, on account of the sticky nature of the berries. This plant is perennial, often existing to a great age. The root, by which it becomes firmly attached to a tree,is thick and woody; the stem is bushy and thickly jointed, but very smooth, as are also the leaves: these are of a lance-shape, but become broader and blunt at the extremity.

The flowers are yellowish, seated on the stem ; the berries white. In Herefordshire and Worcestershire, and wherever apple trees are cultivated to a considerable extent, the misletoe is common; but in other situations it is less frequent. The plant is often cut from the trees, in severe winters, and given to sheep, who devour it with great eagerness, and who are popularly said to be thereby preserved from the disease called the rot.

The misletoe grows on a variety of trees in different parts of England, but has only been found in one situation in Scotland. The common lime tree, the black poplar, the apple tree, and the oak, are subject to this parasite; but the misletoe of the oak is now very rarely seen.

A few specimens are occasionally found, and these are sufficient to prove that the oak does sometimes harbour this guest as in the days of the Druids; but the greater proportion of misletoe is found on the apple tree, in the cider counties. Iu France, this plant is very abundant on the almond tree, and is common on many other trees. In Spain, and also in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem, it infests the olive.

Perhaps it was on account of the rarity of the misletoe found on the oak, that it was held in so much greater estimation than that obtained from other trees. The Greeks and Romans were not ignorant of this plant. Pliny, speaking of that of the oak, says, “The Gauls held this plant in the highest veneration; and their magicians, whom they call Druids, consider nothing more sacred.” The Druidical rites of the ancient Britons have been often described: those relating to the use of the misletoe are not. the least interesting among them. The original cause of the respect paid to this plant, can scarcely be penetrated at this distant era; but it is certain that its magical powers were believed in by Virgil and Ovid, and that the legends of the Saxons favoured the idea of its extraordinary properties. “We find,” says Mr. Christie, “by the allusion of Virgil, who compared the golden bough in infernis to the misletoe, that the use of this plant was not unknown to the religious ceremonies of the ancients, particularly the Greeks, cf whose poets he was the acknowledged imitator.”

In London’s Arboretum, the following fable is given as an abridgment from the Saxon Edda. “Friga, the Scandinavian Venus, having discovered, through her skill in divination, that some evil threatened her son Balder (Apollo), exacted an oath from fire, earth, air, and water, nncl everything that sprang from them, not to injure him. Loke, the evil spirit, finding, at a kind of tournament held soon after by the Scandinavian gods, (who it mugt be remembered were very warlike deities,) that none of the lances, &c, ever touched Balder, but glanced away, as though afraid of approaching him, suspected that they were under the influence of some charm, and determined to discover, if possible, what it was. For this purpose, he disguised himself as an old woman, and introducing himself to Friga, contrived to insinuate himself into her confidence; when Friga told him that everything that grew on the earth, flew in the air, swam in the sea, &c, had taken an oath not to hurt her son. Loke pointed to the misletoe, which neither grew in earth, nor water, and asked her if it was included in the charm. Friga owned it was not; but added, that so feeble and insignificant a plant was not likely to injure. Balder. Loke no sooner left Friga, than he formed, of the branches of the misletoe, a sharp arrow, with which he instructed Heder (the blind god of fate) how to kill Balder. All nature mourned at the loss of the God of the Sun; and Hela (the goddess of death), moved by the universal grief, agreed to restore him if it could be proved that every living thing had shed tears. Every creature wept; and even the trees drooped their branches to the earth, dripping like rain. Loke alone remained with dry eyes; till the gods, enraged at his apathy, rushed upon him en masse, and chained him in the bottomless pit; where he soon shed tears enough to release Balder; but where he is still left, and occasionally, by his struggles to get free, causes earthquakes.” *

The author from whom we gain this fable, supposes that the customs connected with the misletoe were therefore derived from our Saxon, ancestors, who, on the restoration of Balder, dedicated the plant to their Venus, Friga, to place it entirely under her control, and prevent its being again used as an instrument of mischief. This appears a reasonable supposition, and sufficient to account for the mysterious rites and superstitious reverence of the ancient Druids. In the gathering of the plant, at the commencement of their year, we learn that these priests went in solemn procession into the forests, where they raised a grass altar at the foot of the finest oak: they also inscribed on the trunk of the tree the names of the most powerful among their deities. The chief Druid, clad in white robes, then ascended the tree, bearing a consecrated golden pruning hook, with which he cropped the misletoe, and dropped it into a pure white cloth, held out beneath the tree by the remaining priests. If any part of the plant touched the ground, it was considered to be an omen of some dire misfortune about to fall upon the land. This ceremony was performed when the moon was six days old, and when it was concluded, a sacrifice was made of two white bulls.

Another account of the ceremony, slightly differing from this, is given by Stukely, in the Medallic History of Carausius. “This” (Christmas) “was the most respectable festival of our Druids, called yule tide; when misletoe, which they called all-heal, was carried in their hands, and laid upon their altars, as an emblem of the salutiferous advent of Messiah. The misletoe they cut off the trees with their upright hatchets of brass, called celts, and put upon the ends of their staffs, which they carried in their hands. Innumerable are these instruments found all over the British Isles. The custom,” he adds, “is Btill preserved in the north, and was lately at York. On the eve of Christmas-day, they carry misletoe to the high altar of the cathedral, and proclaim a public and universal liberty, pardon, and freedom, to all sorts of inferior or wicked people at the gates of the city, towards the four quarters of heaven.”

In agreement with the latter part of this notice, are the lines of Gay, noticing the evergreens used in decking churches at Christmas,—

When rosemary and bays, the poet’s crown, Are bawl’d in frequent cries through all the town; Then judge the festival of Christmass near, Christinass, the joyous period of the year! How with bright holly all the temples strow, With laurel green, and sacred miseltoe. Yet Mr. Brand, noticing the above, is still of opinion

that misletoe was never put up in churches except b? mistake, or ignorance of the sextons, it being a heathenish and profane plant, distinguished in pagan rites. Many inquiries made on the subject confirmed him in this opinion. An old sexton at Teddington, in Middlesex, told him that some misletoe was once put up in trie church there, but the clergyman immediately ordered it to be removed.

But it is certain that the misletoe was gathered with much solemnity on Christmas-eve, during the feudal ages, and hung up in the great hall with loud shouts and rejoicing.

On Christmas-eve the bells were rung;

On Christmas-eve the mass was sung:

That only night in all the year

Saw the stoled priest the chalice rear.

The damsel donned her kirtle sheen;

The hall was dressed with holly green:

Forth to the woods did merry men go,

To gather in the miseltoe.

Then opened wide the baron’s hall

To vassal, tenant, serf, and alL

The custom of hanging up the entire plant in the kitchens of farm-houses, &c, at Christmas, is still retained in many parts of the country.

The use of the mistletoe, besides that already named, is for making bird-lime from the berries and bark, but the holly is said to answer the purpose better. The plant was also formerly employed as a remedy for epilepsy, but is now discarded from the Materia Medics. The blackbird, field-fare, and thrush, feed on its berries, especially the large species called the missel-thrush. This bird is considered as the chief instrument in the propagation of the misletoe. After feeding on the berries, it wipes off such as may adhere to the outer part of the beak, by rubbing it against a branch of the tree on which it may have happened to alight at the close of its repast. Some of the seeds are thus left on the bark, and if it should prove a fitting receptacle for them, they germinate and root into it in the following spring.

Several writers, both ancient and modern, had entertained the omnion that the misletoe was propagated by the excrements of birds which had fed on the berries. It was our own naturalist, Ray, who first suggested the idea of trying whether the seed would vegetate without passing through the body of the bird; and when it was first tried by a London apothecary, it was attended with complete success.

This person inserted a seed of the misletoe into the bark of a white poplar tree which grew in his garden, and it germinated there. This was afterwards done by many persons on different trees, with the same result; and at length Duhamel proved that these seeds would germinate anywhere, provided they had sufficient moisture. Thus he made them sprout on living trees, on dead branches, bricks, tiles, stones, and in the earth; but none of the plants existed long, except those on living trees.

When the misletoe seed is of an oval form, it generally sends out but one little rootlet; when it is triangular, or irregular, two or three generally appear. While in nearly all other plants the root descends, this is not the case with the misletoe. In this plant the root first rises up, and then bends over until it reaches the body of the substance to which the seed has been attached. Having reached that point, the root swells out at its extremity, like the mouth-piece of a huntinghorn, fixes itself firmly to the bark, and extends itself between the inner bark and the soft wood where the sap is most abundant, sometimes sending up suckers at» distance from the point where the root entered. As the tree itself advances in growth, the roots of the misletoe become embedded in the solid wood, but do not penetrate these by their own energy. As this plant thus derives its subsistence entirely from the branch to wnicD it is annexed, it is natural to suppose that considerable injury results from the union. Both the ascending and returning sap is partially absorbed by the parasite, and therefore the strength of the branch cannot fail to be impaired. When several plants occupy the same branch, they often deprive it of its nourishment so effectually as to cause its death, and eventually their own. In the cider counties, the misletoe is therefore looked upon as an enemy, and by most cultivators, is carefully removed from the apple trees as soon as it developes itself. It seems, indeed, to flourish with extraordinary luxuriance on the apple tree, and in natural circumstances is supposed to exist as long as the tree itself. The largest plant of misletoe ever seen by the writer, occupied the centre of an aged apple tree, itself of most unusual proportions. The propagation of the misletoe has lately been attempted in nurseries. In the Gardener’s Mngazine^ it is recorded that Mr. Moss, of Malvern, near Worcester, has invented an excellent plan of raising the misletoe, by engrafting it, standard high”, on young apple and pear trees in his nursery. The grafts are introduced in the first or second week in May, and are never lower than five feet, nor higher than ten feet from the ground. When the graft is not more than half an inch in diameter, an incision is made in the bark, into which a thin slice of misletoe is inserted, having a bud and leaf at the end. In grafting longer pieces, a notch is cut out of the branch, an incision made below it, and a shoulder left on the graft to rest on the notch in the manner of crown-grafting. It is necessary to observe that the spaces between the joints will not do for grafting; there must be a joint let into the bark of the stock.

About the middle of May is the best time for budding; and the operation differs in retaining a heel of wood below the bud, for insertion. After apple and pear trees, the next best stocks for raising the misletoe, are strong growing willow and poplar.


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