Even though mistletoe is not native to Ireland it has long been associated with Christmas here. The tangled green plant, with its soft white berries, has been introduced in some Irish counties (grafted onto apple trees ), and was being sold in basket fulls at the Galway market last December.
It grows naturally and in profusion in parts of Britain and throughout France. Yet despite its rarity here, it is regarded in parts of rural Ireland as a lucky plant, a protector of our homes, and our fertility, and an assurance of steadfast love from our partners. It’s also a lucky plant for unmarried couples. Although many of these customs are no longer practised, there was something innocent about them, although in hindsight, perhaps deceptively so. I think we have lost something by not sharing our celebrations with nature, who reaches out with blossoms, blooms, berries, smells and tastes, at different times of the year to coincide with our human events.
It was the custom that a girl would hang a sprig over the door and kiss the first unsuspecting young man who came in. He then was obliged to buy the girl a Christmas present. On New Year’s Eve, girls put holly or ivy leaves or a sprig of mistletoe under their pillow to encourage dreams of their future husbands.
After the kiss
Sometimes young men went about with a sprig of mistletoe in their caps, and would try to kiss the first pretty girl they’d meet. Girls would gladly allow them this freedom as they believed that if you were not kissed not only would they not be married the following year; but if they did marry, they could be barren. One suspects this theory was put about by men, eager to kiss the girls! However if, after the kiss, the young man wanted to show more interest, he would pick one of his berries and gently crush it between his fingers. If the girl was impressed by the kiss, she too could pick a berry and a leaf. She swallowed the berry and later pricked her love’s name onto the leaf and slept with it under her pillow.
I’m leaning heavily on the books of Niall Mac Coitir*, Ireland’s greatest expert on the myths, legends and folklore associated with our native plants and trees, for most of this information. I was interested to see that mistletoe is not always seen as a lucky plant. In Brittany it is called herbe de la croix (herb of the cross ) because it is believed that the cross on which Christ was crucified was made from it. Nature was outraged at the betrayal by one of its members against its Creator. The mistletoe was condemned to have its girth shrunk to a finger thickness, and to live as a parasite for eternity.
The name Holly comes from ‘holy’ as it was believed that the holly’s scarlet berries, and the prickly leaves all symbolised the sufferings of Christ. It is always a great joy to have good berried holly in our homes at this time of year, but in other countries it can get a bit nasty. Apparently in Wales there is ‘holly beating’ on St Stephen’s Day. Men and boys would beat the arms of the local women until they drew blood. Also the last person in a household to get up on that day, would be whipped with a bunch of holly and it would only stop when he or she agreed to do the chores.
Mac Coitir says that the reasons for drawing blood dates from the supposed beneficial effect of bleeding which prevailed in former times. There was also the belief that for every drop of blood that was lost through a beating a clear year of life was assured to the loser of it. Children were also thrashed with a holly branch as a remedy for chilblains ‘to let the chilled blood out’. For New Year’s Eve in Scotland the house was decorated with holly to protect it, especially from the fairies.
Killing the wren
Holly was also a requisite part of the Wren Boy costume, as they went from door to door on St Stephen’s Day. It is now illegal to kill a wren. But I remember my grandfather throwing open his front door to a band of wren boys in West Cork many years ago. There was cake, whiskey, and lemonade for them a-plenty. They trooped into the kitchen with melodeons and whistles, and a large cage decorated with holly and ribbons. Inside, on a bed of moss, was a wren, its chest studded with thorns. My grandfather, a gun fowler, angler, and a countryman, was appalled that anyone could kill a wren. The wren boys ran.
But the killing of a wren was a common practice in France, England, Wales and the Isle of Man. In Britain the poor wren is hated because he betrayed St Stephen by hopping on the shoulder of his sleeping jailer, thus alerting him that the saint was escaping. In Ireland we are supposed to hate the wren because he alerted Cromwellian soldiers to an attack by hopping on a drum.