Mistletoe is one of the enduring icons of Christmas, even without the help of Cliff Richard and his 2003 hit “Mistletoe & Wine”. But did you know it is also the county ‘flower’ of Herefordshire because it is so rife in the region thanks to the abundance of old apple trees the plant favors and which grow in abundance throughout the county. So why is mistletoe a must at Christmas?
We’ve the Druids to thank for our attachment to this parasitic plant. They believed it had mystical powers and would cut the plant amidst great ceremony at the time of winter solstice and hang bunches in their homes to ward off evil spirits. Some people believe that you should keep any mistletoe you bring in at Christmas in your home for a full twelve months and then ceremonially burn the old stuff prior to bringing in the new.
When Christianity first took hold in Western Europe, there were attempts to ban mistletoe from being used to decorate churches, because of its Druid connotations. However, people resisted this demand and it is still popular to this day.
The plant derives its name from ‘mistel’ meaning dung and ‘tan’ meaning twig, which follows that if we were to call it by its literal name, it would be known as poo sticks. This is because the seeds are usually spread from tree to tree, courtesy of birds eating them and then pooing on a suitable host. Whilst mistletoe is poisonous to humans, it’s a superfood for birds and insects, providing the perfect food source for all sorts of tiny creatures.
What’s not widely known is that, for centuries, mistletoe was associated with peace and during the two world wars, it was common practice for people to send the troops hand-embroidered Christmas cards featuring mistletoe sprigs.
However, the kissing tradition has somewhat eclipsed this association. In Norse mythology, mistletoe was the plant of love and friendship, so kissing beneath it was meant to bless relationships – likewise the Anglo-Saxons associated the plant with Freya - the Goddess of Love, Fertility and Beauty.
If you’re going to do it properly, once you’ve kissed under the mistletoe you should remove a berry, which means that once all the berries have gone, it’s no longer magical.
European mistletoe is the original and most common variety, but there are some 1500 different species throughout the world. However, it is Herefordshire and its neighbouring county of Worcestershire who are world renowned for growing the best examples as well as most of the bunches we use at Christmas.
Every year Tenbury Wells hosts the now famous mistletoe auction, which attracts buyers from across Europe. The town also holds an annual Mistletoe Festival where the Mistletoe Queen and Prince are crowned plus a festive jamboree throughout the town’s pretty streets.
If you have mistletoe growing at home, remember the plants need to be managed to ensure they don’t kill off your tree in the future. A mistletoe expert suggests that a tree should support just one male and one female plant – the females being those that bear the white berries. If you don’t have a mistletoe plant and are tired of waiting for a random bird to do the job for you, you can now buy kits online to encourage mistletoe to grow in the tree of your choice.