UNITED KINGDOM — Every year, the sleepy little market town of Tenbury Wells, near the border of England and Wales in the county of Worcestershire, hosts an annual Mistletoe Festival. Mistletoe is an important product in this corner of England, due to its numerous apple orchards. Worcestershire and neighbouring Herefordshire mark the start of cider and perry country, which covers most of South West England).
As Suzanne Thomas of the Mistletoe Foundation states: “Viscum album, the English mistletoe is such an amazing plant. It has a wonderful energy and to see it growing in the trees locally is just so lovely. I love autumn, when the leaves fall and the mistletoe is revealed again.”
The festival is a remnant of the old holly and mistletoe markets, which took place for years at the local livestock market. However, that market was disbanded in 2004 and much of the mistletoe sold in UK was now imported. Not wanting to see their own local traditions die out completely, locals birthed the Mistletoe Festival.
The event is a celebration of the mistletoe plant – and of viscum album, the white berried plant, in particular. Viscum cruciatum, the red berried variety, is only found in Southern Europe.
The annual mistletoe festival begins with a blessing ritual hosted by local Druids, and also features plays, music, ceremonies, and parades. A crowning of the Mistletoe Queen provides the climax.
Thomas says, “(The festival) honours the harvests of the Teme Valley [a colloquialism for the wider region around Tenbury Wells], the hops, the apples, and the mistletoe. When the mistletoe has been ‘Awened’ and the beer and apple juice poured over it, the mistletoe (both male and female plants brought together) were given to the River Teme, to send the magic around the world.”
The festival is hosted in the beginning of December to coincide with National Mistletoe Day, Dec. 1.
Mistletoe has a long and fascinating history in Europe. It was regarded as a sacred plant not only by Druids, but also by the ancient Greeks. The Druids had a special ceremony to gather the plant whereby the mistletoe would be harvested on the sixth night after the New Moon following the winter solstice. The mistletoe was then caught in a broad piece of cloth as it was regarded as sacrilege to let it fall to the ground.
Most people today are aware of its history as the Kissing Bough, under which people kiss during Midwinter or Yule celebrations. This tradition goes back beyond modern times to when mistletoe was regarded as a peace plant. The Anglo-Saxons, for instance, believed that mistletoe came from the Goddess Freya, and it was a popular custom to get married under the plant.
In addition, married couples experiencing difficulties were expected to “kiss and make up” beneath it. This tradition can be traced to the story of the Norse god Balder being slain by an arrow crafted from mistletoe. He was restored to life, but the care of the plant was given over to the goddess Freya, to show the plant was now a plant of peace.
The Kissing Bough also predates the Christmas tree in terms of popularity in the UK. The Christmas tree is a German import from Victorian times.Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, was German, and many of the UK traditions associated with this time of the year are actually German in origin. Prior to that time, a mistletoe garland decorated with apples, candles, and coloured paper was usually suspended from the centre of a room and was far more typical.
When Christianity came to the UK, the Church attempted to banish mistletoe by tarnishing its reputation as a healing plant and branding it sinister and pagan. However, the influence of the sacred plant proved to strong, as with many other popular pagan customs. Therefore, it ended up being co-opted into the newly established religious traditions. For example, York Minster cathedral in Northern England used to have a mistletoe ceremony in which criminals would be called to come and be pardoned under the mistletoe.
In recent years, mistletoe has also been used in various medical trials due to its health properties. Although it was a staple of the old apothecary, it is only in the past couple of decades that the plant has been scientifically investigated for its healing potential. In central Europe it already forms a significant part of cancer treatment and has been known to help fertility and cardiovascular issues.
On another note, the acknowledgement by the Tenbury Mistletoe Festival of the Druidic connection with the plant demonstrates the changing attitudes in Britain towards Druidry and Paganism. Being included in such an event is a real demonstration of how Paganism has been accepted as part and parcel of a multi-faith UK.
As Thomas says, “When the Mistletoe Foundation held the ceremony it was a multi-faith thanksgiving ceremony, and the whole community was involved. It brings people together. That’s why it’s important.”
When asked why mistletoe is important to Druids, and Thomas replied, “Mistletoe is magic. It grows between the worlds, it has a male and female plant, that’s the important bit that most people miss.
“The male plant has the pollen, without it and without the fruit flies pollinating it in February/March, there would be no berries on the female plant, yet people cast aside the male, which is actually a very beautiful plant.”
Mistletoe is often referred to as the Golden Bough, first coined by the Roman poet Virgil in the Aeneid. In the poem, Aeneas, the hero of the tale, uses mistletoe under the guidance of his mother Aphrodite to protect himself as he journeys to Hades. The Golden Bough becomes a gift of summer light for Persephone, queen of Hades. In fact, lines from the Aeneid which refer to mistletoe have been used as parts of the ritual at Tenbury.
Through this growing festival, a plant, which has long beend heralded as sacred, is now being given the modern recognition it deserves both in Tenbury and further afield.