Saturday, December 8, 2012

Mistletoe : Proof of Heaven

There is a casual restaurant 
that my husband and I go to for breakfast occasionally.
And this time of year, next to the cash register
there are usually a few sprigs of mistletoe 
being sold for one dollar each.

photo courtesy of

Mistletoe is a soft shade of green with white berries,
so it is a pretty addition to holiday decorating,
but it is poisonous to dogs and people, so I never have it in the house.
I do have a cute artificial sprig that I hang over the door each Christmas though.

I imagine everyone has heard of the tradition
that people should kiss one another 
when they find themselves under the mistletoe.
mistletoe was once considered an aphrodisiac, 
which may explain the idea that one must kiss while standing under it.

On the other hand, in a more prosaic sense,
Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia (Book XVI, Chapter 95)
describes the belief that mistletoe was effective for fattening cattle.
Apparently the idea was to feed them mistletoe,
which would then "purge" any defects in the cattle's system.
Pliny says that if the cattle survived the purging,
they would then in short order become full and fat.
It's amazing that they attributed this effect to the mistletoe.

 Some mistletoe growing on a Shire tree:

But Pliny also notes the importance of mistletoe to the ancient Druids,
whom Pliny describes as magicians of Gaul (ancient France).
According to Pliny, all of the Druid's religious rites centered around this plant
because they believed mistletoe had been sent directly from heaven
as proof that "God himself" had selected the oak trees in which it grew.

The Druids held elaborate ceremonies on "the fifth day of the moon,"
which they revered as the source of healing, calling it omnia sanantem.
The Druids would set a banquet beneath the trees,
and then one of their priests would bring two white bulls.
 The Druid priest would clad himself in a white robe,
climb the tree, cut the mistletoe free using a golden sickle,
and allow it to drop onto a white cloak held out by those waiting below.
Once they had the mistletoe, the Druids sacrificed the bulls 
in order to receive favor from their god.
Pliny comments at the end of the description: 
"Such are the religious feelings which we find entertained
 towards trifling objects among nearly all the nations."

I've  never understood the idea that sacrificing a living being
was somehow pleasing to an ancient god, 
so the Druid's reverence for mistletoe in the rite of sacrifice
seems to me misguided.

But I do like the Druidic idea
that a beautiful evergreen plant can be "proof of heaven,"
a gift to all humans from the source of their spirit.
And this time of year, that makes mistletoe 
an attractive symbol to include in our celebrations.

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