Mistletoe, while celebrated at Christmas for reasons that are, historically speaking, distant enough to be unattributable to a specific cause, is unfairly held in disdain the rest of the year. The green small-leaved white-berried plant, dismissed as a parasite most of the year, is, at Christmas, gathered in small bunches, woven with ribbons, and suspended above the heads of unsuspecting, and sometimes, unconsenting adults. The idea being that adults caught beneath the Mistletoe are compelled to kiss; traditionally, a berry was then removed from the Mistletoe. When the berries were gone, so were the kisses.
The Mistletoe plant itself is really not appreciated; it is not a true parasite in that while it can and does live off of trees, it is also capable of growing independently. There are two main varieties; the European sort, Viscum album, which has smooth, oval evergreen leaves that grow in pairs along woody, fibrous stems and produces waxy white berries that grow in dense little clumps. This variety sometimes takes root in the dirt and produces a shrub. When it does grow on a tree, it seems to be more commonly found on apple trees, and lime, ash, hawthorn, and less commonly on oak trees. The North American variety Phoradendron flavescens, which has shorter and slightly broader leaves that alternate and larger clusters of berries.
Mistletoe plants occur as male pollen-bearing and female berry-bearing forms. The berries are not safe for human consumption, and can, eatten in excess, produce serious gastrointestinal pain, among other side effects, but Misletoe berries are favored by a number of birds. The birds eat the berries, and the seeds pass through their digestive system, and many seeds stick to limbs and branches of trees, assisted by the birds fecal deposits when the birds perch in trees. The seeds germinate, and send roots through the bark of the trees and into the sap-bearing structures of the tree. Over time, the Mistletoe grows, although exceedingly slowly, and eventually may bear berries of its own.
Etymologically, Modern English Mistletoe derives via Middle English from Old English misteltan, a compound of mistel, and the Old English plural -tan (toes), in folk etymology, when in fact -tan is a remnant of the *I. E. tan for “twig,” suffixed to the * I.E. meigh– [Middle English mistelto, back-formation from Old English misteltan (tan, taken for pl. of ta, toe) : mistel, mistletoe; see meigh- in Indo-European roots + tan, twig.] If we look at the Proto Indo-European root behind miseltoe, meigh- we find:
meigh- To urinate. Oldest form *mei=h-, becoming *meigh- in centum languages. a. MIST, from Old English mist, mist; b. MIZZLE1, from Middle English misellen, to drizzle, from a source perhaps akin to Dutch dialectal mieselen, to drizzle; c. MISSEL THRUSH, MISTLETOE, from Old English mistel, mistletoe, from Germanic diminutive form *mihst-ila-, mistletoe (which is propagated through the droppings of the missel thrush). a-c all from Germanic suffixed form *mih-stu-, urine, hence mist, fine rain. 1. Suffixed form *migh-tu-. MICTURATE, from Latin mictur1re, to want to urinate (desiderative of meiere, to urinate). [Pokorny mei=h- 713.
In short, English Miseltoe is cognate with Latin-derived micturate. This makes me suspect that the name Miseltoe is tied to the way the plant drips over trees, or more likely, the very drip-shaped seeds.
Thanks to Pliny the Elder, we have an enduring association of Miseltoe with druids. Pliny the Elder in a longer Latin passage on describing a Druidic religious ritual writes about Miseltoe:
§ 16.95. Upon this occasion we must not omit to mention the admiration that is lavished upon this plant by the Gauls. The druids — for that is the name they give to their magicians — held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, supposing always that tree to be the oak. Of itself the robur is selected by them to form whole groves, and they perform none of their religious rites without employing branches of it; so much so, that it is very probable that the priests themselves may have received their name from the Greek name for that tree. In fact, it is the notion with them that everything that grows on it has been sent immediately from heaven, and that the mistletoe upon it is a proof that the tree has been selected by God himself as an object of his especial favour.
The mistletoe, however, is but rarely found upon the oak; and when found, is gathered with rites replete with religious awe. This is done more particularly on the fifth day of the moon, the day which is the beginning of their months and years, as also of their time cycles, which, with them, are only thirty years. This day they select because the moon, though not yet in the middle of her course, has already considerable power and influence; and they call mistletoe by a name which signifies, in their language, the all-healing. Having made all due preparation for the sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, the horns of which are bound then for the first time. Clad in a white robe the priest ascends the tree, and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, which is received by others in a white cloth. They then sacrifice the victims, offering up their prayers that God will render this gift of his auspicious to those to whom he has so granted it. It is the belief with them that the mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart fecundity to all animals that are barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons. Such are the religious feelings which we find entertained towards trifling objects among nearly all nations Bostock, John H. T. Riley. Translators. Pliny the Elder The Natural History. London: Henry Bohn, 1855..
That’s it. That’s the single reference we have to druids and Miseltoe in an early document. It’s a little problematic, for several reasons. Pliny (23–79 CE) served part of his military service in Gaul and Germany, and certainly came into contact with Celtic speaking peoples. But while it may be based on actual practice, we do not know that it is, and, moreover, the practice of one group of Celtic speakers in one area at one time does not universally apply to all Celtic speakers. We simply don’t know enough. But this passage has given root to all manner of speculation asserted as fact, as in this article.
Another seasonal custom in our household involves hanging mistletoe, which I’ve learned is based on the Celtic druids’ winter solstice ceremony.
The druids considered mistletoe magical. It grows in the tops of the tallest oaks in the woods. Because it had no roots and thus no connection to the earth, druids considered the plant to live in the realm of the gods, miraculously appearing after the oaks dropped their leaves in fall. To the druids, mistletoe’s evergreen foliage signified eternal life, and its white berries symbolized the return of the sun. On the sixth night of the new moon following the solstice, the archdruid called his people together in the oak sanctuary to cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle. Each household got a sprig to put in their barns, to increase their livestock’s fertility, and over their doorways, to ward off evil.Philip Conkling. “A Season for Faith and Ritual.” Down East Magazine. December, 2021.
Mr. Conkling is in no way at fault; I’m sure he did his research, because the additions to the Pliny reference are routinely repeated in all manner of Neo Pagan books and Web sites. Notice that the association with the realms, the idea that the Mistletoe is from the realms of the gods, is pure speculative elaboration. We don’t know that the druids thought that; it is quite possible, but they didn’t engage in philosophical tract production. Notice that the reference Pliny makes to “the fifth day of the moon” becomes “the sixth night of the new moon following the solstice.” This is invention. So is the idea of an archdruid; we don’t know that there was an archdruid. The idea of one druid to rule them all was an eighteenth century invention. It’s not something that’s preserved in what few non-Classical texts we have. It’s quite possible, even reasonable, but we don’t know. Then the last bit about sprigs of Mistletoe in barns — nope. That’s not the way ancient Celts kept their cattle. Just enough were wintered over to have young the next near, and they weren’t kept in barns. Enclosures, made of stone, wood, and withy (some of which have remained, in part), possibly with run-in sheds, but nothing like the modern concept of a barn.
But people have seized on the idea of Mistletoe with alacrity, even to the point of asserting that human sacrifices in the form of bog-bodies have become firmly associated with ingestion Mistletoe, even assertions that it was hallucenogenic.
Some grains of Miseltoe pollen were found in the stomach of Lindow Man, the bog body. When I say “some,” more specifically, the contents of his stomach contained the remains of his last meal; a crude barley and oat cake, partially scorched that also contained various local plant seeds, and 4 grains of Miseltoe pollen. It is more than likely, I suspect, that the pollen was an inadvertent inclusion. The flowers (which are rather pretty, quite colorful, and remind me of blossoms) bloom in Europe in February and March, and were likely in bloom at the time when Lindow Man consumed his last meal.
When my mother was a child in South Carolina, in December, people would shoot Mistletoe bunches off the tops of the very tall trees where the plant grew, then hang the greens and berries in the form of garlands with ribbons. Now, while some people still harvest their own Mistletoe, most people buy it at the florist.