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programme 2012 2013

Mistletoe in Tradition, Literature and History


Viscum Album: the only white-fruited shrub in Northern Europe, was the seasonal offering from Bidford History Society at its last meeting in 2012. Central to present-day Christmas celebrations, mistletoe has been around for many centuries, and is famous in ancient Roman and Norse traditions. It may be found in much of England, but its home territory is in Worcestershire, Hereford and Gloucestershire, where the bulk of it is harvested.

Jonathan Briggs is a botanist and an expert on mistletoe and its traditional associations, and completed the Society’s year with a scholarly presentation on its history and its role in literature, myth and popular culture.

The legendary roots of the Mistletoe story may be found in Virgil and Pliny, as well as among the sagas of Iceland and Norway, and its berries are scarlet as well as white. It was said by Virgil to have supernatural powers (and eased the path of Aeneas in and out of Hades), while in recent French legend it equipped Asterix with medical powers, making him invincible in his skirmishes with the Romans.

For more than a thousand years, the notion of mistletoe as a herbal remedy persisted in Europe. Yet it was never very popular with the Church, and the only celebrated place of worship which has used it as a winter decoration is York Minster. Legend says it keeps evil spirits at bay, but the church by and large tends to regard it simply as a decorative option, and goes for more spectacular alternatives.

The association between mistletoe and romance seems to have emerged in the 16th century, but not taken hold until the 1800’s, when the flirtatious tradition we still enjoy was born, and the mistletoe in English-speaking countries, and gui in French, became part of romantic symbolism. Gui is still a good-luck symbol on the continent and may be seen adorning living-room furniture and ornaments.

Mistletoe grows best on apple trees, and in gardens and orchards. Continuing reduction in the cultivation of orchards in this country has tended to reduce the volume available for local use. It grows in France as well, from where it is exported to other English speaking markets around the world. It is also subject to other influences: the habits and success of the mistle thrush and the continental blackcap as propagators can be critical in the spread of mistletoe, both in the UK and elsewhere, and climatic variations can also dictate where and in what volume it is likely to appear.


Mr. Briggs interestingly introduced the possibility of using mistletoe in the treatment of human illnesses, speaking of experiments with cancer patients in Germany and possible benefits mistletoe treatment might have on the human immune system. He did not go beyond saying that medical researchers are looking into its use. On the other hand, he did describe some intriguing new “traditions” such as the “Mistletoe Queen of Tenbury Wells” – a 2003 invention, which may yet be welded on to the mistletoe mythology.


Mr. Briggs’s presentation was accompanied by mulled wine and mince pies. The vote of thanks was given by the Society Chairman John Alexander Head, who remarked on the range of knowledge he had demonstrated, adding that the society had finished the year on an unusually high note.




programme 2012 2013
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