Planting kisses, kissing plants – An Irishman’s Diary about the strange power of mistletoe

‘Its role in kissing aside, the plant also has a rather sinister reputation, stretching back millennia’

 “I suspect that, for kiss-licensing purposes, the plant has always been much less used on this island than in Britain.” Photograph: Hulton Archive

“I suspect that, for kiss-licensing purposes, the plant has always been much less used on this island than in Britain.” Photograph: Hulton Archive

 

Few plants have exerted such mystical power over the affairs of humans as mistletoe. Here, for example, is the 19th-century poet John Clare describing its effects on a normally timid shepherd, who sees a sprig hanging from a cottage ceiling:

“The shepherd now no more afraid/Since custom doth the chance bestow/Steps up to kiss the giggling maid/Beneath the branch of mistletoe.”

That was in 1827. And in the following lines, Clare seems to lament the decline in this old custom: “The shadow still of what hath been/Which fashion yearly fades away”.

But as we know, he needn’t have worried.

Modern shepherds continue to use the plant as an excuse for imposing themselves on maids, giggling or otherwise. And even in an age where the consent principle is firmly enshrined in human relationships, the deployment of mistletoe (which, long freed from attachment to cottage ceilings, can be dangerously mobile now) still allows no right of refusal.

I suspect that, for kiss-licensing purposes, the plant has always been much less used on this island than in Britain. It is in any case very rare here. It was introduced to Ireland, via the Botanic Gardens, a few years before Clare’s poem. And from there it may have escaped into the wilds of neighbouring Drumcondra, with inevitable consequences on the local social life.

But in general, any mistletoe finds I’ve heard of have been confined to the country’s eastern fringe – which, coincidentally, was also the part that could always pick up the BBC signal, another phenomenon associated with the loosening of sexual mores.

Its role in kissing aside, the plant also has a rather sinister reputation, stretching back millennia. Shakespeare called it “the baleful mistletoe” – by which he may have meant anything from the fact of its parasitism in living off other trees, to a tradition that it used to be a tree itself, until used for Christ’s cross.

In Scandinavian legend, it was implicated in the death of Baldur, son of Odin and god of light. By a sort-of mythological insurance policy, his mother Frigg had bound all living things by oath not to harm him. But in the small print, mistletoe was somehow overlooked and supplied the arrow that did him in.

Speaking of insurance policies, there used to be a natural limit on the number of times any mistletoe branch could be used in kissing. Brewer’s Dictionary still primly laments the decline of the “correct procedure, now seldom observed” whereby a berry was plucked for each go. No doubt it was the scarcity of the plant that led to the current, more sustainable usage.

It was presumably because of its association with the crucifixion rather than kissing that mistletoe has been traditionally banned from churches (and it’s perhaps just as well it’s banned, or you can imagine what the exchange of the sign of peace would be like at this time of year).

But then, the plant may also have been too much associated with pagan ceremonies, including even human sacrifices. One of the best-known descriptions is from almost 2,000 years ago, by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder. He was writing about Celtic Gaul, where druids were said to consider the coincidence of mistletoe and oak trees especially magical.

Wherever it was found, there was an elaborate rite involving a pair of white bulls and a priest, also dressed in white, who climbed the tree and cut the plant off it with a golden sickle, before killing the bulls. The mistletoe so harvested was believed to make barren animals fertile and to be an antidote to all poisons.

Strange to say, a later generation of Gauls – the revolutionaries of the 1790s – do not seem to have considered mistletoe important, even though they exalted nature almost as much as the druids had. Their short-lived but famous calendar abolished Sundays and holy days, replacing them with a system that celebrated animals, plants, and minerals.

They found room in it for a day devoted to the dandelion (pissenlit in French), the Jerusalem Artichoke, and even “Scurvy Grass”, among many others. Yet I can’t find mistletoe on the calendar anywhere.

Its absence is all the more conspicuous since the French are so famous for kissing. But maybe that’s the point. Shorn of the religious and medical powers it was once thought to have, mistletoe has been reduced in modern times to a single function – the licensing of physical intimacy. And in that area, unlike some of their neighbours, the French never needed an excuse.

@FrankmcnallyIT