“Upon this occasion we must not omit to mention the admiration that is lavished upon this plant by the Gauls.
“The Druids … for that is the name they give to their magicians … hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, supposing always that tree to be the robur (the oak). Of itself the robur is selected by them to form whole groves, and they perform none of their religious rites without employing branches of it; so much so, that it is very probable that the priests themselves may have received their name from the Greek name for that tree. In fact, it is the notion with them that everything that grows on it has been sent immediately from heaven, and that the mistletoe upon it is a proof that the tree has been selected by God himself as an object of his especial favour.”
This is a translation, by the American academic Mary Jones in her Celtic Literature Collective, of an extract from chapter 95 of book 16 of Historia Naturalis by the Roman scholar and author Pliny the Elder, who died in 79 AD. The Historia Naturalis … the literal translation is ‘Natural History’ … is one of the very first encyclopaedias, whose contents cover very much more than what we understand as ‘natural history’ but, in the translated words of its author, include all of “the natural world, or life”. The relevance of these words to us as the New Year approaches is in their assurance that the mistletoe is a sacred plant. And Pliny explained the circumstances surrounding the harvesting of this sacred plant. “Having made all due preparation for the sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, the horns of which 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, which is received by others in a white cloak. … It is the belief with them that the mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart fecundity to all animals that are barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.”
Mistletoe grows wild in parts of England … particularly all those counties through which the River Severn flows … but is not found in Scotland as a wild plant, any examples found here being descendants of discarded, bought plants. In those parts of England where it does occur in the wild, there is every reason to suppose that the pre-Christian priests shared practises with their French neighbours and believed the mistletoe to be a plant endowed with magical powers. And those powers were extensive! It cured epilepsy; it made women fertile as well as having similar powers with farm animals; it gave protection against witches and hobgoblins; and it brought good luck to any home in which it was hung, providing always that it had been cut with due ceremony. It was, in short, an apotropaic plant, having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck. And it was associated with the turn of the year, when the dead things of yesteryear began to give way to the new life of another year.
During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a fad for all things druidic swept England; ancient customs and beliefs were re-discovered and ancient rituals re-enacted. Mistletoe, which was a small bit-part player in the Christmas celebrations … having what one might describe as a walk-on role in a drama starring holly and ivy … became something of a star. Commercial interest in the plant was aroused, and its cultivation for sale commenced, initially in those parts of England where it was known, later spreading to include areas where it … and the beliefs associated with it … were previously unknown. So, gentle readers, if you are minded to hang mistletoe in your home this New Year, you may choose to remember that it is an alien plant in Scotland and that you are continuing a pagan belief in its magical powers: but gentlemen may choose to forget that a girl can only be kissed on the cheek!