Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Mistletoe Lore and Legend

by Anne O'Brien

Kissing under the Mistletoe?
How frivolous!
Not in Medieval Herefordshire!

 There is an awful lot of mistletoe in Herefordshire.  Many mature trees are festooned with it, the large bunches easy to see now that the leaves have fallen. Apple trees in orchards are weighed down with it.  I have some on my own apple trees in my garden. In December the mistletoe is harvested and a mistletoe market is traditionally held in Tenbury Wells on three consecutive Saturdays before Christmas.  It is an institution.  Holly is for sale too in huge piles.  Buyers come from miles around.

 But in Herefordshire, in past centuries, mistletoe was not considered a plant to encourage much kissing in this festive season.  Rather it was believed to be  a plant of magical properties, and the activities associated with it certainly go back to a pre-Christian age.

 Based on the research done by Ella Mary Leather in the 1920s, interviewing local folk (the Folklore and Witchcraft of Herefordshire), the custom all over Herefordshire, certainly until the final years of the 19th Century, was to weave a globe of hawthorn and mistletoe into a 'bush'  which was hung in the kitchen on New Year's Day.  There it would remain throughout the year until the next New Year's Day when the bush with its mistletoe would be taken outside and burned.  At the same time a new 'bush' would be woven, sometimes cider poured over it and the ends of the branches scorched in the fire, and brought back into the kitchen for the following year.  Definitely the remnant of some primitive ritual. 

New mistletoe was NEVER brought into the house at any time between one New Year's Day and the next.  It would be considered highly unlucky to do so.

The burning of the old bush on New Year's Day took place very early - sometimes as early as five o' clock in the morning - so that the evil spirits from the old year would be caught up in it and destroyed, thus giving the New Year a good start free from evil.  While the old bush was burning, the new one was woven, for the house must not be left without this protection.  Much cider was drunk and cake eaten.  Sometimes there was dancing and singing by the men-folk in a ring around the fire.  We still see this custom, particularly on 6th of January, when the Leominster Morris Men perform the traditional wassail in one of the local orchards.

 In some areas fire from the burning bush was carried across the fields and orchards to ensure a good crop.  It was believed that without this ceremony the crops and the apples would fail.  One belief was that the bush represented Our Lord's crown of thorns and when they carried the fire across the fields they were driving away the 'old un' (the Devil).

 So kissing under the mistletoe in Herefordshire?  No chance!
Is this custom of burning the bush still carried out today in rural households?
I don't know. 
But I burned my bunch of mistletoe from last year on the 1st January.  I didn't dance around the fire, or sing, but I certainly drank a glass of cider and ate cake.
Ah, but did I perhaps also kiss my husband under the mistletoe?
Now that would be telling ...

My best wishes to all for 2015.

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