For the avoidance of doubt (as we lawyers like to say), I’m talking here about European mistletoe: Viscum album (Linnaeus). There are about 70–100 species worldwide, as well as New World and southern hemisphere ‘mistletoes’ of quite different species, which are far too complicated for me to dabble in.
Mistletoe is sited in the family Santalaceae, or sandalwoods. It is hemiparasitic, in that it draws nourishment from its host plant, but its green leaves contain chlorophyll, so that it can also feed itself. The flowers are insignificant, yellowish and looking like new leaf buds, but of course it is the berries that are the important feature.
The odd thing about mistletoe is that it seems to have entered the Christian Christmas tradition with out any serious attempt to alter the pagan symbolism. The other Yuletide evergreens, holly and ivy, have been taken in: think of the different holly carols, the three-lobed ivy as a symbol of the Trinity.
However, kissing under the mistletoe seems to be a purely pagan survival: I can find only two reference to mistletoe – both in the ‘secular’ section – in William Henry Husk’s Songs of the Nativity, where bays and rosemary, as well as the holly and ivy, get frequent mentions: ‘Down with the rosemary, and so / Down with the bays and mistletoe …’ for Candlemas Eve, when any greenery surviving after Twelfth Night had to be taken down, or as many goblins would appear as the remaining leaves, to frighten the maids.
The etymology of the word ‘mistle’ itself seems obscure, according to the OED. It has cognates in other Germanic languages, and the ‘toe’ suffix is from OE ‘tan’, a twig. I quote: ‘OE. mistiltán (= ON. mistilteinn, Sw., Da. mistleten), f. mistil, -el (see missel) + tán twig. The normal development (with obscuration of the final syllable) of OE. mistiltán is represented by the β-forms, of which the disyllabic γ-forms appear to be merely contractions. The α-forms, to which the current form belongs, descend from another type having secondary stress on the final syllable, which app. underwent the same development as the uncompounded word tán (str. masc.), from which tá (wk. fem.) was evolved in late WS.’ I feel that’s very helpful.
The berries are eaten by a variety of birds, most famously the mistle thrush (Turdus viscivorus, i.e. ‘mistletoe-eating’), bigger, paler and more aggressive than the garden song thrush (Turdus philomelos), but smaller than the bulky, grey-headed fieldfare (Turdus pilaris), a winter visitor to Britain.
The seeds are distributed either in the birds’ excreta, or by their rubbing their sticky beaks on tree bark to clean them. (The pulp/juice is so sticky that the berries of a southern African variety (Viscum rotundifolium) can be used to make birdlime.)
Once a seed is lodged, a root tip emerges which will penetrate the bark of the tree and draw up food and water: the true parasitic forms of the plant may eventually kill their host. However, the European mistletoe, since it can produce food by photosynthesis, does not starve the host of nutrients, but it may weaken it in other ways, including depriving the tree’s own leaf and flower shoots of light, or bringing down branches with its weight. Although it is associated, in myth and folklore, with specific trees such as the oak and the apple, it is known to flourish on up to 200 species of trees and shrubs.
Ah yes, the myth and folklore … I will refer you to Sir James Frazer for a dazzling overview of all the stories – from classical, Germanic and other sources – relating to the plant, from the death of Baldur the Beautiful to the Sibyl’s Golden Bough itself.
One specifically Christian tradition is that the mistletoe used to be a tree, but was used to make the cross on which Christ was crucified (hence the names ‘lignum crucis’ and ‘herbe de la croix’), and afterwards shrivelled down in shame to become a clinging parasite.
‘The Mistletoe Bough’ is a ballad of reputed great antiquity, in fact written about 1830 by Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797–1839) and set to music by Sir Henry Bishop (1786–1855), the first composer to be knighted, but who since, like his lyricist, has faded into almost complete obscurity. (Bishop must have known Michael Kelly, as he wrote several pieces for the King’s Theatre; he was also a founder member of the Philharmonic Society.)
The story on which the song is based (of a newly wedded Christmas bride who, while playing hide-and-seek, inadvertently locks herself into an old chest, and is never seen again; many years later a skeleton, still clad in the tatters of a wedding dress, is discovered in the chest) may be ancient – there are several country houses (including Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, Exton Hall near Rutland and Marwell and Bramshill in Hampshire) which claim the legend as their own.
However, Bayly may have been inspired by the story of Ginevra, in Italy, a long poem published in 1822–8 by Samuel Rogers (1763–1855), wealthy banker and art collector as well as writer, who placed the tragedy in Modena. (Italy flopped at first, but Rogers revised it and commissioned steel engravings from Turner for a sumptuous new edition in 1830 which was very popular.) Alternatively, of course, Rogers might have heard Bayly’s ballad and decided to place the story in Italy: in the 1830 edition, he noted: ‘The story is, I believe, founded on fact; though the time and the place are uncertain. Many old houses lay claim to it.’
For our purposes, though, it is disappointing: the two-line refrain: ‘Oh, the mistletoe bough, Oh, the mistletoe bough’, is irrelevant to the plot, as mistletoe appears only in the scene-setting first line: ‘The mistletoe hung in the castle hall’. But it brings us to an interesting point, which is that mistletoe is very rarely depicted in European art. It was frequently cited and depicted in herbals, where the leaves and young twigs, dried and ground up, were recommended as antispasmodic, tonic and narcotic in effect. (The berries are poisonous to humans.)
But unlike the holly and the ivy, it doesn’t appear much in medieval manuscripts, and really comes into its own only in the art deco/art nouveau period, possibly because its geometric style and simplicity of colouring appealed.
The Arts and Crafts movement and the contemporary revival of Celtic myth (with both of which, of course, William Morris had a great deal to do) may also have played a part in its popularity. It also appears in Victorian Christmas cards and other illustrations – cartoonists rather enjoyed mocking the sentimental notion of the mistletoe kiss.
If you have a mistletoe bough, bunch, or ball in your home this Christmas, remember (a) not to fashion darts out of it; (b) that for every kiss taken, a berry must be picked. Any kisses when they are all gone will bring doom and disaster on everyone in the house – and God bless us, every one!