From parasite to Pickwick's pleasure


Mr Pickwick, as we all remember from those famous Papers, spent Christmas at Dingley Dell in 1827. There he found that "old Wardle had suspended with his own hands a huge branch of mistletoe, and this same branch of mistletoe instantaneously gave rise to a scene of general and most delightful struggling and confusion".

The mistletoe is a strange, unusual little plant. Known to the cognoscenti as the Viscum album, , there is a myth that it was the lignum sanctae crucis, , the wood from which the Crucifixion cross was made, and that it was for serving this unholy purpose that the mistletoe was condemned to be a parasite.

It grows in an almost spherical bushy mass, one or two feet in diameter, on the branches of almost any kind of tree.

The mistletoe plays its part in meteorology. Our ancestors in classical times depended for their protection from lightning on certain plants or animals believed to be immune from lightning strike.

Wearing an olive branch was a reliable preventive measure; so was the laurel wreath, which besides being a symbol of victory, also protected its wearer from the thunderbolt.

We of the northern latitudes, however, living as we do where olive trees and even laurels are rather hard to find, took to the mistletoe instead to meet this need: a sprig of the plant, hanging in a room, is said to provide infallible lightning protection for a dwelling. Even further back, it is said that on those rare occasions when mistletoe was found growing on an oak, the Celtic druids would cut the plant with a golden sickle.

They would catch it in a pure white robe to prevent the draining of its magic powers by contact with the earth, and then use it in sacred and mysterious rites intended to make barren women fertile. It may well be in this latter ancient belief that the origins of the more recent custom of kissing under the mistletoe are to be found.

It may be the ultimate explanation as to why "when Mr Pickwick was standing under the mistletoe, looking with a very pleased countenance on all that was passing around him, the young lady with the black eyes, after a little whispering with the other young ladies, made a sudden dart forward and saluted him affectionately on the left cheek; and before Mr Pickwick distinctly knew what was the matter, he was surrounded by the whole body of the women, and being kissed by every one of them".