Mistletoe Myths

Christmastime in Regency England began on Christmas Eve—it was considered bad luck to decorate any earlier, a tradition lost in this very commercial modern world. Decorations included holly with its prickly green leaves and bright red berries, green ivy and fragrant rosemary, evergreen boughs, laurel and bay leaves, and—of course—mistletoe. In the countryside, this could be collected, and in the city, it could be purchased, and many an enterprising young person might gather the greenery to sell and raise some money.

This image is from the early 1800s and shows a couple about to kiss underneath a bough of mistletoe. Others sit around them and another couple waits their turn.

Jane Austen also mentions cutting out ornaments from gold paper and silk to pin onto the greenery. The decorations would stay in place until Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, when it was said the three kings or magi visited baby Jesus, and Twelfth Night cake would be served. It would be bad luck to leave it up any longer, and so the greenery—now dry—would be burned.

The custom of kissing under the mistletoe—or kissing bough—was in place in Regency England, but its exact origins are lost.

Mistletoe was prized by the ancient Greeks, and included in marriage ceremonies. Romans used the plant as a symbol of peace. The Norse considered it a symbol of peace as well, with a myth about the death of Baldur, killed by a spear of the plant, and after that the goddess Frigg declared the mistletoe to instead be a symbol of love. The Druids thought the plant, which grows upon other trees, had magical and medicinal powers and brought good luck. It was usually found on apple trees, but was considered a divine plant when found upon oak trees. The Druids used mistletoe to cure infertility, but mistletoe was a herbal remedy used for centuries to treat arthritis, epilepsy, hypertension, headaches, and menopausal symptoms.

Its modern name comes to us from Old English mistiltan, which in turn comes from the old Saxon words mistel, a word of uncertain origins, and Proto-Germanic word tan, meaning “twig” (which in turn traces back to the Old Saxon and Old Frisian word ten, and the Old Norse teinn).

While decorating with mistletoe in winter dates to pre-Christian times—it was a custom in Wales to decorate the house with mistletoe—Mark Forsyth in his book A Christmas Cornucopia: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Yuletide Traditions traced the tradition of a kiss under the mistletoe to starting up somewhere between 1720 and 1784 in England. Forsyth notes mention of mistletoe in print in 1719 and 1720 books by John Colbatch. The apothecary and physician wrote on the superstitions and customs associated with mistletoe, but without a mention of kissing. That could be due to him being more interested in its medicinal properties. Forsyth also mentions stories from the 1700s depicted women “using the mistletoe excuse to elude possessive husbands and parents”—so it seems to have been a way to break some rules.

The tradition holds that a man is allowed to kiss any woman—or a woman may kiss any man—standing beneath a sprig of mistletoe, or a kissing bough made by weaving the mistletoe into a ball. If the kiss is refused, bad luck befalls that person. When a kiss is taken, a berry is plucked off the mistletoe, and after the last berry has been taken, no more kisses can be stolen.

But a Regency Christmas was not just about stolen kisses. The Reverend William Holland, who served at the vicarage of Overstowe in Somerset, kept a diary of his life there from 1799 to 1818. Not only did he hold the traditional Christmas Eve service, with its church bells calling the faithful to attend, he and his family would be woken early on Christmas by wassailers who sang for their traditional drink. Holland then opened his house to these folks and the villagers for food and drink, showing the custom in Regency England of goodwill and charity at Christmastime. Let us hope he also had some mistletoe in the house.

For more reading:
https://www.95th-rifles.co.uk, A Regency Christmas
https://randombitsoffascination.com, Kissing Boughs and Mistletoe
https://janeaustensworld.com, Gathering Mistletoe

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  1. Fascinating post, Kristen. Thanks for all the wonderful information! Happy Holidays. I had no idea it was used for so many medicinal purposes.

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