Christmas legends and stories are many with some traditions coming down to us through dozens of cultural pathways. I find the legends connected with historical herbalism among the most fascinating.
Certainly herb lore is largely credited with most of our decorative symbols of the Christmas season (remember that Christmas means “Christ’s Mass” or celebration). Christ’s Mass in the Christian world is a celebration made resplendent when we decorate our homes, churches and public places with a profusion of the herb or plant ornaments associated with Christmas.
Christmas Herbs Are Multicultural
While the majority of Christmas herbal lore is centered on the Nativity of Christ, the herbs that become associated with this event came from diverse traditions known to the early Greeks and Romans, the old Norse countries which now include Denmark, Sweden and Norway, from Germany and ancient Druidic Britain. While researching this subject, I found there are more than two dozen herbs or plants traditionally a part of Christmas.
To take an example, we are all familiar with the Christmas wreath, usually made of evergreen boughs and holly. The wreath – a never-ending circle – is symbolic of immortality and eternity in Christian belief, but the making of wreaths is an ancient and honored practice that began more than a thousand years before the birth of Christ.
Crowns of oak leaves, laurel, ivy, olive, palm and even parsley were worn at festivals in many ancient cultures by special or honored persons. Christian ceremony took over the wreath for the observance of Advent and the herbs used included evergreen juniper, rosemary, lavender, laurel, sage, artemisia, Our Lady’s bedstraw, penny-royal, rue, horehound, thyme and globe amaranth. These herbs associated with the Holy Family, and in this context the wreath itself was made large enough to be displayed in the home, but not worn by any person.
Mystical Mistletoe: Symbol Of Peace And Love
Amidst the dozens of herbs of Christian legend, I was particularly fascinated by the mysterious Mistletoe or Viscum album native to Europe and of the botanical family Loranthaceae. The origin of the Mistletoe myth lies buried in Norse folklore and came to be associated with Christmas by way of Druidic Britain. Now that is cultural potpourri if ever there was one!
Mistletoe is a parasitic evergreen plant that needs a “host” tree on which to live. It prefers soft barked trees and has been shown to absorb different compounds from its “host” and thus have different chemical properties depending on where it grows.
As Mistletoe was commonly found on oak trees (of special significance to the Druids), it was regarded as a sacred symbol in ancient Britain. Flowering Mistletoe produces white berries in December (Winter in the northern hemisphere) and was thought to be miraculous for this unseasonal ripening.
Druidic healers called it “all-heal”, regarded it as a holy herb and bringer of good luck. It was used medicinally for nervous disorders, poor digestion, high blood pressure and pneumonia. The Druids gathered Misdetoe for their New Year’s observances to bring good luck to the community. This is probably why it is customary to decorate with Mistletoe for the holiday season. And even though the early Christian fathers frowned on the practice because of its pagan origins, the common folk continued to use the Mistletoe secretly.
A Kiss Not To Be Missed
If the Druids thought the Mistletoe a good luck herb and its appearance in oak trees meant a rich source of medicines, we have to thank the Norsefolk for sweetening the value of the Mistletoe by regarding its legendary history as symbolic of love and peace.
According to Norse mythology, Balder, the son of the goddess of love Frigga, was a vain, handsome and invincible man whom no ordinary weapon could harm. Balder was magically protected against all manner of injury – except injury dealt by one thing; the Mistletoe.
In a pique of jealousy, Loki, an evil spirit, made an arrow from the Mistletoe and mortally wounded Balder. Balder’s mother was so grief-stricken by this treacherous deed, she wept without ceasing until the other gods despaired. In her grief, Frigga’s tears fell on the Mistletoe and changed to pear-like berries.
To console Frigga, the other gods restored Balder to life. So great was Frigga’s joy over this that she named the Mistletoe a symbol of peace and declared that it should be hung high in every dwelling so that anyone passing beneath it should receive a kiss from the goddess.
A Mistletoe kissing ball thus became a traditional new year and winter festival symbol and was one of the earliest and most popular decorations in European folklore. It even pre-dates the evergreen Christmas tree which is actually a more recent tradition by way of German folk custom. Traditionally, Mistletoe decorations were displayed from December 6 to January 6.
Modern Mistletoe Medicine
Since the days of the Druid healers, Mistletoe has been held in high regard in herbal medicine. As mentioned earlier, because the Mistletoe is a parasitic plant, what chemical compounds it bears are determined by its host tree. Mistletoe is semi-cultivated in some parts of the world (China) by inoculating the bark of a host tree (apple trees are often used) with the squashed ripe Mistletoe berries.
Mistletoe has been studied for its possible anti-cancer effects as it contains substances called lectins which may combine with certain cancer cells. It has been shown to have blood-pressure reducing qualities, is slightly sedative and a mild diuretic.
These fundings agree with the traditional uses of Misdetoe for nervous complaints and heart conditions, but it should be pointed out that the chemistry and pharmacology of Mistletoe are extremely complicated and, according to Malcolm Stuart’s Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism it should only be used with professional supervision. Common sense would dictate caution in reference to Mistletoe medicinally, but there is no reason to dodge a kiss under the Mistletoe this Christmas!