The afternoons are so short this time of year – I’m glad for Christmas decorations adding a bit of sparkle and wish they stayed up for the whole of January. If they’re not electric, decorations are usually brightly coloured: yellow (candles) or red (holly) or green (leaves). This is about how we came across a tree unwittingly decorated for Christmas – with that more sombre decoration, mysterious mistletoe.
Darkness falls so early that the dogs in our local park have taken to wearing their flashing collars when it gets to 3.30 pm. The week before Christmas includes the longest nights of winter, with winter solstice on 22nd December and sunrise as late as 8 am. A lot of people find these long hours of darkness depressing. But you can make your day longer. All you need to do is decide on a nearby open space, then look at the weather forecast and choose a potentially sunny morning. Easy!
But then comes the hard bit: you need to enlist a co-walker and agree that you’ll get up before 7 am, grab a cup of tea and set off . This could be even more difficult if your co-walker is a teen, or indeed an “owl” of any age. But if you can persuade someone to get up early (and that someone could be yourself), then you can enjoy spectacular dawn walks. This is an ideal “Twixtmas” activity, for the time between Christmas and New Year. You’ll need to set off about 7.20 am. If you leave it until the summer solstice you’ll have to set off at 3.30 am to get this experience! When you get back home you’ll have earned a special breakfast, and exercising in the morning light helps us sleep better at night.
On our dawn walk we made some new discoveries. And felt a bit smug to be up and about while most people are trying to get out of bed. Everything looks beautiful in the dawn light, and it’s so peaceful. On our walk this morning my daughter and I came across a tree hosting nest-like balls of mistletoe. Mistletoe is a sucker – a parasitic plant with oval green leaves and white berries. It sucks water and nutrients from the tree but the green leaves enable it to photosynthesize as well, and it attracts berry-eating birds. Each berry contains a sticky seed which adheres to the bird’s beak and that’s how mistletoe reproduces: the bird disperses the seeds. Our tree made a lovely silhouette against the rising sun. We probably wouldn’t have noticed the mistletoe if we’d seen the tree in full daylight.
There are lots of stories in mistletoe’s history which explain its survival as a Christmas decoration. The ancient Druids (Celtic priests) believed that mistletoe had magic powers, probably because it bloomed in winter. They believed that it brought good luck and warded off evil spirits. This carried on through the Middle Ages, when it also became associated with vitality and fertility.
In Victorian England a new custom developed in which a man could kiss a woman under the mistletoe, and if she refused she would run into bad luck. The man could not go wrong! One berry would be plucked for each kiss and when all the berries were gone the mistletoe would be discarded.
Mistletoe is called “Mistelzweig” in German and “mistel” in Swedish. In Scandinavian tales it symbolises peace and love. In French it is called “le gui” and is sometimes hung up to bring luck for the New Year. The kissing under the mistletoe is a mainly English tradition. By the way, the plant and berries are poisonous to humans and dogs; in case you want to hang some in your house it should be high up if you have small children or pets.
Despite an apparently bumper yield of mistletoe this year, the tradition seems to be losing popularity. Its competitor, holly, has more brightly coloured leaves and berries. An anonymous group of people calling themselves “Mistletube” has been hanging mistletoe in tube trains in London, hoping to “bring Christmas cheer to one of the most miserable places in London”. Reactions among London commuters, who traditionally avoid even making eye contact with each other, have been mixed.
Do you know any other customs involving mysterious mistletoe? It would be interesting to hear some more facts about mistletoe, or about traditions from different countries.
John Welton says
This is a really great subject as Winter time is the only time we can really spot the Mistletoe in the trees and we have 2 important species of bird that use the berries as a valuable winter food source. The Mistle Thrush (now sadly in decline) eats the whole berry and disperses the seed in their droppings and the Blackcap (happily on the increase) eats the fruit part of the berry and smears the seed onto the branch with its beak. Both ways are great for the seed to germinate and produce new plants.
Jane Welton says
Thanks for these interesting details, John. It's great to have some input from a tree surgeon's point of view!
Eva Estrany says
Very interesting to find out about different traditions in different countries! In Spain there's a tradition of giving a bunch of mistletoe (in a nice cellophane bag and/or decorative figurine) to your loved ones to bring them good luck. You can find them in all Christmas Markets.
Jane Welton says
Thanks Eva, it would be interesting to find out more traditions.