Mistletoe traditions, in Scotland, come from two very different sources.
When the Romans settled in Britain, they despised and dreaded the Druids. It wasn’t until AD60 that they were able to drive them out. However, their customs, although never written down, lingered in the Celtic communities.
The Druids were the high priests, ‘knower of the oak tree’, with beliefs of enlightenment and learning. One of their most sacred tokens was the mistletoe, because it grew on the side of the oak tree. Many of their rites and rituals were performed with garlands of mistletoe tied around their bodies.
Its mastery was thought so devout, it was removed from the tree with a golden knife, on the sixth day of the moon. Then carefully collected, making sure none of the plant fell and touched the earth.
Mistletoe was also attached to women’s wrists or waists to increase fertility and to safe-guard them from witches. Because it is green all year round the Druids celebrated its essence of rebirth.
At Winter Solstice, on the twenty-first of December, the Druids blessed the mistletoe. Although, steeped in modern Christmas traditions, the mistletoe is never found adorning the inside of any churches. There is just too much Pagan folklore associated with it.
When the Vikings invaded, Scotland, around the eighth century they brought with them their legends of Norse Gods.
The Nordic goddess of foreknowledge, Freyja, was one day glorified with a son, whom she named Baldur. When he was convinced, he was to die young, Freyja, was determined to use her powers to try to prevent it. She commanded the whole kingdom to swear, they would not make a weapon, from any stone nor anything that sprouted from the ground.
But a naughty god called, Loki, was resentful. He went in search of the mistletoe, growing on the side of the oak tree. Its feet free from the earth. Out of its stems he made an arrow, which struck Baldur, and killed him.
Freyja cradled her son and cried. As her tears dropped, they became little white berries around the mistletoe’s leaves. She was not angry at the mistletoe. She acknowledged its innocence and saw it as a rune of adoration and serenity.
She declared that any couple who passed beneath its white berries should show their love by kissing. Then they were to pick one of the berries, so that they would be happy forever, and free from harm.
All parts of the plant are poisonous. Berries, leaves and stems contain ‘phoratoxin & viscotoxin’. Three berries and two leaves taken by mouth will aid mental & physical exhaustion, whooping cough, asthma, dizziness, diarrhea, and liver & bladder complaints. If greater amounts are digested, side effects will occur, but it is unlikely to cause death.
Many patients, in Scotland, are currently being treated with the extract of mistletoe. It is thought to increase the body’s immune system after chemotherapy. There is no real evidence of its powers, so doctors are concerned people suffering from cancer may put too much faith in it.
Mistletoe usually grows in open spaces as it likes locations with lots of light. Graveyards, gardens, parklands and orchards are ideal. In Britain it has taken to attach itself to the side of cultivated apple trees. It depends on the ‘flowerpecker’ bird to scatter its seeds.
It is very important to the mistletoe marble moth, whose larvae mulches its leaves under the bark and resides there, throughout, the winter. Butterflies lay their eggs on the mistletoe & their young eat the leaves. Adult butterflies & bees need the nectar.
The berries appear October to January, so give necessary winter feeding to deer, small animals of the forest, robins & other birds. As mistletoe is a partial parasite, taking food to live from its tree host, this can sometimes lead to the death of the tree, thus providing good nesting habitats for many birds.