Embracing an ancient tradition

Mistletoe is known as the 'kissing bough', a garland famously associated with love, but long ago it was used by Druids in sacrifices. Roger Ratcliffe explores the myths and legends of our most symbolic Christmas plant.

ON Christmas Eve, just before the annual Carol Service at York Minster, the Dean will quietly perform a ritual more related to pagan times than Christianity.

Using a simple piece of string, the Very Rev Keith Jones will tie a ball of mistletoe to one of the riddel posts on the high altar of the Minster choir. His intention will not be to lure some unsuspecting young lady to within kissing distance of its wishbone-shaped twigs of slender leaves and waxy white berries, but to keep up a unique tradition.

Because of mistletoe's dark past – especially its use in sacrifices – most churches won't allow the plant through their doors. For centuries, however, York Minster has been the only cathedral in Britain to hang up mistletoe at Christmas.

Mistletoe was long held to have supernatural powers. It's an evergreen which not only thrives on trees when they have lost their leaves, but even produces juicy berries in the depths of winter. This vitality in the face of apparent death makes it easy to understand why mistletoe was sacred to the ancient Britons.

Its abilities were thought to include curing tumours, bringing people out of unconsciousness and fending off evil spirits. Also, of course, there is the widely known link with love and fertility. In medieval times women thought they could increase their chances of conceiving if they tied mistletoe to their waists.

But the huge mythology surrounding mistletoe made early Christians shun the plant. Druids – the pagan priests of pre-Roman Britain – had a ceremony on the sixth day of the moon nearest to the winter solstice when they would "hail the moon", asking it to heal all who were sick.

The ceremony involved a sacrifice of two white bulls and the holding of a banquet under an oak tree on which – and this was a vital part of the ritual – mistletoe was growing. Mistletoe was their symbol of everlasting life.

Wearing white vestments, the Druid priest climbed the tree and using a gold sickle would cut the mistletoe. It would be caught in a white cloak below. When this was done, he would descend from the tree and kill the bulls.

Only at York Minster is there a long tradition of accepting a plant with this background into the church at Christmas, but nowhere in the Minster's extensive archives can anyone find the reason.

What is known is that as far back as the Middle Ages the Dean would first put on ceremonial gloves before formally placing the mistletoe at the high altar. A proclamation was then made of a "public and universal liberty, pardon and freedom of all sorts of inferior and wicked people at the Minster steps, and the gates of the City, towards the four quarters of Heaven". In York, this was long held to mean an amnesty for local criminals on Christmas Eve if they came to the Minster.

For a time in the 19th Century one of the Deans refused to continue the tradition of hanging mistletoe in York Minster, but today's Dean has no such doubts.

"It has an easy Christian meaning for me," says the Very Rev Keith Jones. "The way it grows on another tree, as it were, makes it represent living together in harmony, and it's a well-known symbol of affection. So to hang it in your church as part of the Christmas decorations, I believe, makes sense.

"All the great Christian symbols have their roots in natural religion. One of the central things about Christian theology is that it says Paganism is not wrong in what it's trying to do, it just hasn't got the point. Christianity simply adds the meaning."

He didn't know about York Minster's Christmas mistletoe when he was appointed Dean in 2004. "There's nothing written down about this. It's an oral tradition, usually passed down by the head verger."

The best-known mistletoe tradition, of course, is kissing. The earliest folk custom was that a young woman would stand under a garland of mistletoe and expect to be kissed. She would pluck one berry for each kiss.

A popular rhyme surviving from the Middle Ages was:

"Pick a berry off the mistletoe

For every kiss that's given.

When the berries have all gone

There's an end to kissing."

Mistletoe is a semi-parasite which grows on other trees, most notably the apple tree, but also oak, lime and poplar. It has sometimes been called "the vampire plant" because it sucks the sap of trees.

The name's origin is unknown. It's unlikely to be related to the German word "mist", which means dung. More likely it is associated with the Old English word "mistel" which was a word for health-sustaining herbs like basil.

The Mistle Thrush is so-named because it is one of the birds widely held to be the chief spreader of mistletoe. The plant's white berries contain a sticky gum called viscin, which firmly fixes the seeds to trees when the birds clean them off their beaks. An alternative theory of propagation was advanced by the Roman historian Pliny, who believed that the seeds wouldn't germinate until they had been "ripened" by passing through the bird.

The seeds will take root in any crevice. In some areas of rural Yorkshire it is a tradition for young women to press mistletoe berries into the bark of crab apple trees to maintain a supply of mistletoe for Christmas kisses.

In parts of West Yorkshire there is a tradition that the mistletoe should not be taken down on Twelfth Night, but kept in place to keep away witches until Shrove Tuesday, when it should then be burned as the first pancake is made.

It is now hard to find any mistletoe growing in Yorkshire. One of the county's official botany recorders, Mrs Phyll Abbot of Leeds, can personally name just one mistletoe-bearing tree for sure – a lime in the grounds of Lotherton Hall on the city's eastern fringes.

Otherwise, it is said to be found in fewer than 10 places – mostly orchards above the magnesium limestone band between Ripon and Castleford. Neil Aldridge of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust says it grows on some trees at the Brockadale Nature Reserve on the banks of the River Went between Pontefract and Doncaster, and there is some found in the region of Withernsea.

The biggest mistletoe-growing area in Britain is around the River Severn, where most orchards are found.

Perhaps giving a new meaning to the expression "French kiss", most of mistletoe now sold in Yorkshire's shops and garden centres is imported from Normandy.