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Winter
Customs and Traditions
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Mistletoe and holly

Holly was the sacred plant of Saturn and was used at the Roman Saturnalia festival to honour him. Romans gave one another holly wreaths and carried them about decorating images of Saturn with it. It was used as folk medicine for toothache, measles and dog bites.

Mistletoe and holly at Christmas
To avoid persecution during the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalis, the early Christians decked their homes with Saturnalia holly. As Christian numbers increased and their customs prevailed, holly and mistletoe lost their pagan associations and became symbols of Christmas.

Peace and joy... and kisses
Mistletoe is a symbol for peace and joy. The idea originated in the ancient times of the Druids: whenever enemies met under the mistletoe in the forest, they had to lay down their arms and observe a truce until the next day. From this comes the custom of hanging a ball of mistletoe from the ceiling and exchanging kisses under it as a sign of friendship and goodwill.

In the 18th Century, the exchanging of kisses between a man and a woman was adopted as a promise to marry. At Christmas a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe cannot refuse to be kissed. The kiss could mean deep romance, lasting friendship and goodwill. It was believed that if the girl remained unkissed, she cannot expect to marry the following year.

Mistletoe
Mistletoe before it becomes a wreath.

Mistletoe was held sacred by ancient peoples. It was forbidden to fight in the presence of mistletoe. Eventually the tradition carried through as the Christmas slogan "Peace and Joy unto all men.'

In the Celtic language mistletoe means "all-heal."

British bee farmers used to put sprigs of mistletoe on their beehives. They believed the bees hummed in honour of the Christ Child.

In France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year's Day. Today, kisses can be exchanged under the mistletoe any time during the holiday season.

To avoid persecution during Roman pagan festivals, early Christians decked their homes with holly.

Druids wore sprigs of holly in their hair when they went into the forest to watch their priests cut their sacred mistletoe.

The English had the "he holly and the she holly" as being the determining factor in who will rule the household in the following year. The "she holly" have smooth leaves and the "he holly" prickly ones.

The common name of the mistletoe is derived from bird droppings. "Mistel" is the Anglo-Saxon word for "dung," and "tan" is the word for "twig." So, mistletoe means "dung-on-a-twig." (!)

The History of Mistletoe

[Note: While not part of the Istrian Christmas traditions, there are two types of mistletoe that are native to Istria. The use of mistletoe during the Christmas season, and especially for kissing those who pass under it, has otherwise become almost universal.]

Mistletoe is a partial parasite, a "hemiparasite." As a parasitic plant, it grows on the branches or trunk of a tree and actually sends out roots that penetrate into the tree and take up nutrients. It is also capable for growing on its own, producing its own food by photosynthesis.

There are two types of mistletoe. The European mistletoe (Viscum album) is a green shrub with small, yellow flowers and white, sticky berries which are considered poisonous. It commonly seen on apple trees, and sometimes on oak trees, and it grows in Istria. The rarer oak mistletoe was greatly venerated by the ancient Celts and Germans and used as a ceremonial plant by early Europeans. The mistletoe found in North America (Phoradendron flavescens) grows as a parasite on trees from New Jersey to Florida. Another plant that is known as the Dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium oxycedri) grows on junipers and is found in Istria.

Mistletoe was often hung over the entrances to homes of the pagans in Scandinavian countries to keep out evil spirits. An old Scandinavian myth tells of the seemingly invulnerable god, Balder, who was struck down by a dart made fromn mistletoe. The tears of this mother, Frigga, became the white berries of the mistletoe, and it was decreed that the plant must never again be used as a weapon.

When Balder, the son of the Norse goddess Frigga, was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe by Loki, and evil spirit, she wept tears of white berries which brought him back to life. Overjoyed, Frigga blessed the plant and bestowed to kiss all who passed beneath it.

Mistletoe was held sacred by the Norse, the Celtic Druids and the North American Indians. The Druid priests would cut mistletoe from an oak tree with a golden sickle. The branches had to be caught before they touched the ground. They then divided the branches into many sprigs and distributed them to the people, who hung them over doorways as protection against thunder, lightning and other evils. The folklore continued over the centuries. It was believed that a sprig placed in a baby's cradle would protect the child from goblins. Giving a sprig to the first cow calving after New Year would protect the entire herd.

Frigga, who was the goddess of love, henceforth gave a kiss to anyone who passed under the mistletoe. It may be that our present custom of kissing under the mistletoe derives from this old legend.

Legend holds that the Druids, who were members of a pagan religious order in ancient Gaul, Briton and Ireland, held the mistletoe in such reverence that if enemies met under it in the forest, a truce was declared for the day. It was their belief that only happiness would enter a home when mistletoe hung overt the door.

When the Yule season approached, the mistletoe was cut down from the sacred oaks by the Prince of the Druids who used a golden sickle. The mistletoe was distributed to the people who believed it possessed powers of the protection against sickness and evil. Later among Christians it came to symbolize the healing powers of Christ.

Sources:
  • http://www.didyouknow.cd/xmas/mistletoe.htm

  • http://www.merry-christmas.com/stories/mistletoe.htm

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Created: Sunday, January 1, 2006; Last updated: Sunday, December 06, 2015
Copyright 1998 IstriaNet.org, USA