• Christine Dorman

Mystical, Magical: Mistletoe in Celtic Society and Lore

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

Kissing under the mistletoe is a fun yuletide tradition but, for the Celts, there was so much more to this mystical, magical plant.

“Oh by gosh by golly / It’s time for mistletoe and holly” (from the Christmas song “Mistletoe and Holly”). Yes, it’s that time again. Time for trees and lights, nativity scenes and snowmen, for decking the halls with holly and ivy, and for kissing under the mistletoe. This post will focus specifically on the mistletoe. (Don’t worry; a post about holly and ivy is coming up soon). Mistletoe, of course, is a well-known part of the Christmas tradition. It is hung up at this time of the year with the hope of kissing that someone special under it. That tradition has its roots in Norse folklore (and possibly ancient Greek customs). But mistletoe is tremendously important in Celtic culture as well, especially in pre-Christian Celtic culture. The plant was considered sacred and was so highly regarded that there was a ritual for harvesting it. This ritual was led by a Druid priest and, afterwards, cattle were sacrificed in thanksgiving for the gift of the mistletoe. Did I mention it was important to the Celts?

Since mistletoe is an evergreen, the Celts considered it a symbol of robustness. They also saw it as a symbol of fertility because it bloomed in the winter. But the plant’s qualities were more than symbolic to the Celts. They believed mistletoe could impart these characteristics to both humans and animals. Because mistletoe is parasitic, attaching itself to a host tree and feeding on that tree’s nutrients, the Celts believed that the plant also took on and could pass on the qualities they associated with the tree on which the mistletoe was found. European mistletoe grew on several different species of trees, including willows and crab apples, but the Celts considered it most magical and sacred when it grew on oaks. The oak was one of two royal trees in Celtic society (holly was the other). It was revered for its strength and longevity. So mistletoe found on an oak was believed to have the most potent magic.

Celts considered mistletoe so magical & sacred that harvesting it required a ritual led by a Druid priest.

Harvesting mistletoe required a religious ritual. Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, described the ceremony. He said that a Druid cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle. Four Celts stood beneath the priest, holding a sheet ready to catch the plant as it fell from the tree. Mistletoe was considered so sacred that it was kept from touching the ground. Then two white bulls were slaughtered as a blood sacrifice in thanksgiving for the mistletoe. (Green Miranda J. The World of the Druids, 18. Thames and Hudson. London, 1997).

The Celts didn’t go through all that, though, just so the plant could be hung as decoration or to give people a chance to steal a kiss. Mistletoe was believed not only to impart strength, longevity, and fertility to people and livestock, it was believed to be a cure all as a medicine. While modern medicine does not make that claim, current alternative medicine practitioners acknowledge its efficacy in treating high blood pressure, headaches, and arthritis, among other conditions. In Europe, an injection of a pharmaceutical made from mistletoe is given as a treatment for cancer.

In addition to its medicinal uses, mistletoe was carried as a protection against poisons. This is ironic because, while its berries provide needed food for birds during the winter, those same berries are poisonous to humans. The leaves are poisonous too. The Celts also hung mistletoe in houses and stables for protection from evil and from faerie mischief.

Mistletoe berries provided needed food for birds during winter, but the plant is poisonous to humans. Ironically, the Celts used mistletoe as a protection from poison.

Once Christianity came to the Celtic lands, mistletoe did not disappear from the culture. It simply was absorbed into the celebration of Christmas.

The Vikings invading Ireland brought with them the Norse association of mistletoe with kissing and love. To this day, there is an Irish tradition of hanging mistletoe in order to bring love into the home. It also is seen as a symbol of goodwill and peace.

So during this coming Christmas season, when you see mistletoe, remember it is a symbol not only of romance, but of good health and vitality, and of the mystical and magical in Celtic society!

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Posts coming up: Winter Solstice, Holly and Ivy. Slan!

Holly and Ivy in Celtic culture coming up soon!

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