Join together beneath the mistletoe.
By the holy oak whereon it grows.
Seven Druids dance in seven time.
Sing the song the bells call, loudly chiming.
Ring out these bells.
Ring out, ring Solstice bells.
Ring Solstice bells.
— Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull ©1977
Mistletoe is probably the most magical of the plants associated with Yuletide and has, from very ancient times, been considered sacred. It is often included in modern Christmas decorations simply for the fun of kissing beneath it and, though this seems to be a peculiarly English custom, it harkens back to the mistletoe’s association with fertility.
Mistletoe is associated with Christmas because of its role in ancient Winter Solstice practices. The Roman historian, Pliny, gives us a detailed account of the Druids’ solemn ceremonies at Winter Solstice for the gathering of the mistletoe, an unusual plant with no roots in the Earth, so thought to be of divine origin or produced by lightning. Mistletoe found growing in the oak was considered especially potent in magical virtues, for the oak was the most holy tree of the Gods. According to Pliny, at Winter Solstice, the Druids would lead a procession into the forest and, upon finding the sacred plant growing on an oak, the High Priest, dressed all in white, would climb the tree and cut the mistletoe with a knife or sickle made of gold. The mistletoe was not allowed to touch the ground and was instead caught in a white linen cloth.
The Druids would then carry the mistletoe to their temple, placing it beneath the altar stone for three days. Early on the fourth day, roughly corresponding to the present Christmas Day, it was taken out, chopped into pieces and handed out among the worshippers. The berries were kept by the priests and priestesses, to be used to heal various diseases.
Druids were not the only ones who considered mistletoe a sacred healing plant. Until quite recently the rural folk of Sweden and Switzerland believed that the mistletoe could only be picked at certain times and in a special way if its full potency as healer and protector was to be secured. The Sun must be in Sagittarius (the month prior to Winter Solstice), the Moon must be waning and, following ancient practices, the mistletoe must not be just picked but shot or knocked down. And, like the practice among the Druids, it must never be allowed to touch the ground.
Mistletoe was considered something of a universal panacea, as can be gleaned from the ancient Celtic word for it: “uile,” which translates to ‘all-healer.’ Mistletoe was used for everything from headaches to epilepsy; and indeed modern research has shown that the drug guipsine which is used in the treatment of nervous illnesses and high blood pressure is contained in mistletoe.
Not only was mistletoe looked upon as a healer of all ills, but if hung around the house, it protected the home against fire and other hazards. Since it was widely believed that mistletoe was produced by lightning, it had the power of sympathetic magic to protect the home against thunderbolts.
In the north of England, it used to be the practice of farmers to give mistletoe to the first cow that calved after New Year’s Day. This was believed to ensure health to the stock and a good milk yield throughout the year. Underlying this old belief was the fear of vengeful sorcery or mischievous faerie folk who could play havoc with dairy produce, so here mistletoe was used as a counter-magic against such evil influences. In Sweden, too, a bunch of this magical plant hanging from the living room ceiling or in the stable or cow-shed was thought to render trolls powerless to work mischief.
With such a tremendous array of myth, magic and folklore associated with it, reaching far back into our Pagan past, it is not surprising that in today’s climate of fundamentalist Christian intolerance, mistletoe is forbidden in many churches.
Yet, those of us with European roots resonate with these ancient memories, do we not? For how many millennia did our Old Ones deck their halls with boughs of holly, ivy, pine and mistletoe? These magical plants, once revered as sacred by our pre-Christian ancestors are forever intertwined in our hearts’ beliefs. Their magic calls out to us still as we celebrate the return of the Sun every December.
Let us honor our plant allies and their gifts as we feast and make merry that all of Life is reborn.
Ring out, ring Solstice bells.