Puckering up to the magic of mistletoe

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IT’S BEEN the excuse for many a Christmas carry-on – and more than a few festive falling-outs.

Mistletoe.

Still banned from many churches through its ancient status as a pagan fertility symbol, still hung up in pubs and at office parties to offer an excuse for the tipsy to grab a Christmas kiss.

And still very popular in Sheffield, according to those that supply it.

“We still sell a lot of it at this time of year, more so than holly,” said Paul Hill from fruit, vegetable and flower wholesaler Enos Kay of Attercliffe Markets.

“The best place to get mistletoe is in Herefordshire and the Welsh border areas. You can get it from France but it doesn’t hold up like ours.

“The price seemes to have been static over the past few years although transport costs have gone through the roof.

“It is in plentiful supply and we sell it to shops from here. You can buy it loose or in a bundle and we sell it to all sorts of shops, not just flower shops.

“People like to buy it for office parties or to have in pubs. We sell it in bunches or by the box, about the size of a banana box. It works out at about £20 for 4.5 kilos, that’s wholesale price, not retail.”

But mistletoe’s magic is short-lived.

“From being cut to being unusable is about three weeks, that’s its lifespan,” adds Paul.

Christmas mistletoe seller engraving

Christmas mistletoe seller engraving

The plant’s harmless modern image as a prompt for Christmas revellers to engage in impromptu snogging masks the plant’s mysterious history.

To understand the plant’s enduring power, imagine yourself in a medieval winter with a medieval mindset.

It’s a freezing winter’s day. Everything around is grey, dead, lifeless – except for those virulent green bundles nestling in the treetops.

It has no roots yet it’s vigorously alive and bursting with berries. The perfect and potent symbol of vitality, virility, renewal and immortality in the midwinter landscape.

Over the top? Our ancestors didn’t think so and a procession of Romans, Celts and Druids bestowed magical qualities upon the plant, from the power to cure disease, banish witches and ward off evil to bringing good luck for the year to come.

Women wishing to conceive would wear lengths of mistletoe around wrists or waists, hoping to harness the plant’s powers of fertility – and it is maybe from this practice that the convention of kissing under the mistletoe descends.

The word mistletoe originates from the ancient perception that mistletoe plants burst forth – as if by magic – from the excrement of the “mistel” (or “missel”) thrush.

It was observed that mistletoe would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings – which it did after birds had eaten mistletoe seeds that germinated in their dung.

‘Mistel’ is the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘dung,’ and ‘tan’ is the word for ‘twig’. So, mistletoe means ‘dung-on-a-twig’.”

Not exactly a word origin in keeping with the plant’s romantic reputation but mistletoe constantly emerges from the shadows of winter to extend its groping, historic embrace around our collective subconscious.

Revealed among the branches as the autumn leaves fall, mistletoe is perhaps the evergreen we most closely associate with the Christmas season, even more so than holly and ivy. Ruth Bunting of Bouquet Florists in Crookes says it’s still a popular item with her customers – usually in the last week before Christmas. However Sheila Thorpe of Bloomin Krackers in Handsworth said: “I don‘t think people bother with it like they used to, they just get plastic mistletoe they can use every year.”