Winter’s ancient symbol of vigor and life


In the contemporary Western world, Christmas starts with Christmas Eve on Dec. 24. and ends with Boxing Day on Dec. 26. In times now long past, though — and on calendars now long since consigned to history — the date of Christmas and celebrations of the birth of Christ have varied from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6 and April 19 — and even to as late in the year as May 20.

The Western Church, which arose in the Roman Empire, probably settled on Dec. 25 because it was already invested with meaning as the Saturnalia, the Roman celebration of the great winter solstice, as well as being a day of celebration for devotees of Mithras, the Roman sun god.

The winter solstice was also a day of celebration for the Celts and other northern folk. It was from the Celts’ ritual use of mistletoe that the parasitic plant was incorporated as a Christmas decoration back in merrie olde Tudor England (1485-1603), when Christmas was celebrated for 12 days, with the festivities concluding on Jan. 6, known as Twelfth Night.

Recalling my early youth, Christmas mistletoe evokes memories of acute embarrassment. Those are on account of the peculiar custom of kissing girls under the mistletoe, which was usually hung from a ceiling lightshade or over doorways. Not that I didn’t like kissing girls, but I’d rather have done it more privately, and with more choice over whom I kissed — instead of being urged on indiscriminately by well-inebriated aunts and uncles.

“There she is lad, standing under the mistletoe; go on then, give her a smacker . . . ” Nudge, nudge; yuck yuck.

As I got older I learned that this custom had evolved, or rather, degenerated, from an ancient Celtic rite, when the Druids would harvest mistletoe which grew on oaks to use in ceremonies related to the renewal of life. In the middle of winter, when many trees are bare of leaves and berries, the mistletoe is green and bearing fruit.

The Roman chronicler, Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79), describes in detail in his encyclopedia “Natural History” the Druidic rites of gathering mistletoe.

As translated by Kendrick, this reads: “They call the mistletoe by a name meaning the ‘all-healing.’ Having made preparations for sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, whose horns are bound then for the first time.

“Clad in a white robe, the priest ascends the tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and it is received by others in a white cloak. They kill the victims, praying that God will render this gift of his propitious to those to whom he has granted it. They believe that the mistletoe, taken in drink, imparts fertility to barren animals, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.”

Pliny’s account was accurate. The Irish and Scottish Gaelic for mistletoe is indeed uil-ioc, meaning “all-healing.” My library of Celtic lore describes how mistletoe was used to treat vertigo, dizziness, headaches, heart problems, high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis.

The Druids apparently believed that mistletoe contained the “spirit” of the host tree, so the oak — one of the greatest, strongest, longest-lasting and fruitful of trees — would be the most revered host for the plant.

I have an English dictionary that was printed in 1812. Looking up mistletoe, I find that “some physicians ascribe to it great virtues in the cure of epilepsy.”

Other reference books tell me that pressed mistletoe berries contain cholin, acetycholin and visoloxin, all three of which, injected intravenously, can temporarily reduce high blood pressure.

Those ancients, though they may not have expressed their knowledge in such scientific terms, certainly knew a thing or two about this singular plant.

On the other side of the world, here in Japan, mistletoe is found on deciduous trees all over the highlands, and we have some fine bunches growing on silver birch trees in our woods here in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture. With many fine old-growth trees in this area, mistletoe is in plentiful supply, and a liqueur is sometimes made by steeping the berries in alcohol and sugar.

I find it a pleasant drink, which the local ladies who make it tell me benefits the heart and all manner of female health problems — not that I imbibe for either of those reasons, mind you.

However, my “Webster’s New World Dictionary” says that mistletoe has “waxy, white, poisonous berries.” Poisonous?

I do remember that the mistletoe berries I saw in Britain had waxy, white berries, but at the time I never tried to eat one. Looking into botanical texts, I see that there are basically two kinds of mistletoe — the American version being Phorandendron flavescens, and the European version being Viscum album. Is it that the American mistletoe is toxic and the Eurasian varieties are not? (Perhaps some reader may know for sure, and e-mail the Timeout address on Page 9.)

The Japanese name for mistletoe is yadorigi (lit. lodger tree), obviously because the plant lodges on another, with the host providing water and some nourishment. To my knowledge, there are two varieties to look out for — hozaki yadorigi, which has greenish berries, and akami yadorigi, with its reddish-orange berries.

There’s a big bunch of orange-berried mistletoe in my house right now and, feeling curious, I tasted a berry. It was pleasantly sweet, so I nibbled on another three. No noticeable ill-effects, but when I tried to spit out the little seeds, I found it impossible. They kept coming back.

Phut! Out goes the pip for a little way, then back it comes on a glutinous thread. So if you eat mistletoe seeds and don’t swallow the pips, you’ll have to wipe them off your mouth.

Which brings us to the “mist” part of the plant’s English name. Books tell me that the mistletoe seeds are spread by little birds who wipe the sticky pips off their bills onto the branches of deciduous trees. However, I have seen some excellent film footage of little birds smearing sticky mistletoe seeds off their bottoms by rubbing their rumps on branches to get the pesky things off.

Herein is the clue to the name of mistletoe. Dictionaries say that it probably comes from the Old English and German word mista — meaning “dung.” I checked with a German dictionary and found a marvelous list of words starting with “mist.” My favorite was “mistfink” . . . which I certainly will adopt into my personal verbal armory (though I’ll leave it to you to you, delicate reader, to work out its meaning for yourself).

Thinking about all those little birds busily wiping their bums on tree branches gives me a bit of a giggle — but whoever gave the plant that name was very observant, if not much of a romantic. He (or she) probably hated snowballs too.

Silly old mistfink (OK — it means something like “rascal”).

Happy winter anyway!