Mistletoe: A Touch of Celtic Magic at Christmas
[This is an update of my 2019 post “Mystical, Magical Mistletoe in Celtic Society and Lore”]
A favorite Christmas tradition is kissing under the mistletoe. In Celtic folklore, however, this evergreen is good for much more than stealing a kiss. The Druids regarded it as sacred and believed it held powerful magic. Here’s its story.
First, some facts. Mistletoe is a parasite. To be precise, it is a hemiparasitic plant. While it does use photosynthesis for some of its energy, the plant always attaches itself to a host tree from which it obtains nutrients. Mistletoe commonly can be found on a number of trees which the Celts honored: alder, ash, birch, and elder. It also attaches itself to one of the most sacred trees in Celtic culture: the oak. Because mistletoe is a parasite, over time it will kill its host tree. Perhaps this is why the Celts cut the plant from the oak.
But folklore and traditions develop slowly in societies and, eventually, people lose track of why they started practicing the rituals. They come to believe this is how things have always been done and they create an origin story to explain the reason for the rituals. An example of this is the story of the woman who was teaching her daughter how to make a rib roast. She explained that the meat needed to be cut in half and cooked in two small pans. When her daughter asked why it couldn’t simply be put into one large pan, her mother was surprised by the question. All she knew was that this was how her mother had always made a roast. After a moment, she told her daughter that the meat would cook better and be juicier if it were smaller and the two parts cooked separately. Later, the woman phoned her own mother and asked, “Mom, why does rib roast need to be divided into two pans?” Her mother laughed and said, “It doesn’t. I just did that because I didn’t have a large roasting pan.”
Whatever the reason was that the Celts began cutting mistletoe off trees, the practice developed into a once yearly sacred ritual which could be performed only by a Druid priest. The harvesting took place six days after the first new moon of autumn. According to the Roman philosopher, Pliny the Elder, a Druid priest climbed the oak tree and cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle. Other Celts, likely apprentices to the priest, stood below him, holding a cloak stretched out to catch the plant in when it fell. The mistletoe was so sacred that it was not, under any circumstances, to touch the ground. Once the harvesting was accomplished, two white bulls were sacrificed and prayers offered up in thanksgiving. This was followed by a great banquet.
So why all the fuss? Why did the Celts offer thanksgiving for the mistletoe and why did they consider this plant so sacred? There are a few reasons. First, it was an evergreen and the Celts believed all evergreens contained powerful magic since the plants stayed alive and maintained their vibrant color throughout the winter. Secondly, mistletoe was attached to the sacred oak. Because the plant fed on the oak, the Celts believed, it absorbed the oak’s holy and magical attributes. Thirdly, the Celts thought mistletoe was placed on oak trees by a lightning strike sent by the god of thunder. All of this contributed to the plant’s high standing in Celtic society. But there was another reason the Celts so valued the mistletoe: they considered it a cure-all.
Mistletoe was believed to be an antidote for all poisons. This is ironic because some species of mistletoe (there are a variety) are poisonous. It was used as well as a proactive measure, to protect against poison. In addition, the evergreen was used to treat a wide range of illnesses. Even today, mistletoe is used medicinally in Europe to treat headaches, high blood pressure, arthritis, and even cancer. [Again, many varieties of this plant are poisonous, especially the berries and leaves. Do NOT use it without medical guidance.]
Because of its evergreen quality, the Celts gave mistletoe to animals, such as cattle, as a way to increase their fertility. In addition, they hung it in homes and stables to ward off evil and bring the inhabitants good luck. It also was said to protect against faerie mischief. Perhaps because of its association with the thunder god, mistletoe was thought to protect against lightning strikes as well. Over time, folklore about the plant grew to include the belief that peace and love would prevail in any house in which mistletoe hung. So, each year, Celts would bring a fresh sprig of mistletoe into their homes. When the Celts converted to Christianity, they held onto many of their ancient folklore practices. To this day, the Irish hang mistletoe as a symbol of love and peace.
So during this coming Christmas season, when you see mistletoe, remember it not only represents a fun holiday tradition about stolen kisses. It is a symbol of good health, vitality, love, and peace. It’s also a lovely reminder of the mystical and magical traditions of Celtic culture and folklore!
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Slainte! Wishing you the joy, peace, love, and magic of a Celtic Christmas.
Nollaig Shona Daoibh!
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