The December bride who, bored with dancing, skipped from the castle hall to play hide-and-seek, a white bird flickering into the dark...
The groom, who searched each room, calling her name; then the bridal guests, flame-lit, checking the grounds...
The fifty Christmases till a carpenter jemmied an old oak chest; the skeleton with its unstrung pearls, loose emeralds, its rings of diamond, sapphire, gold...
The running feet, the shouting for others to see what he’d seen; mistletoe in the loose bones of a hand...
like love, patiently green.
I recently read in ecologist and ancient woodland expert Oliver Rackham's book The Ash Tree that witchcraft and folklore is really more pseudo-science than pseudo-religion. I can see what he means; take the mistletoe as an example.
Mistletoe: connections between fact and folklore
High up in the bare branches of winter trees grow mysterious balls of green leaves with poisonous, snow white berries: the parasitic plant species, Mistletoe, Viscum album. Everything around it seems dead and lifeless and yet, despite not seeming to have any roots for water and nutrients, it is fresh and green.
This mysterious property has led to ancient folk stories and beliefs in its magical ability. Druids were enchanted by the magic of mistletoe and associated it with fertility and growth; women hoping to conceive were encouraged to tuck a sprig of it in their waistband. There is a Scandinavian legend about the god Balder whose mother charms fire, disease, water and everything in nature she can think of and gets them to promise they won't harm her son. However, she forgets about the mistletoe because it seems too weak to hurt him. In the end, Balder's enemy, Loke, magics a mistletoe dart and slays him.
The real reason mistletoe seems to grow spontaneously is because it is a parasite that uses its host trees' water and nutrients to survive and stay green. It finds life on host trees when birds eat its white berries and excrete the seeds on tree branches. As the undigested seeds start to grow, they drill into the branch to reach the trees’ water and nutrients. Without the host tree mistletoe cannot survive.
Collecting festive #factandfolklore stories
Do you know any strange festive crossovers between fact and folklore? If so, let me know!
I'm looking to collect more festive facts and folklore with a view to maybe creating an advent calendar next year so please share your stories either by email at email@example.com, or via twitter, facebook or instagram using the hashtag #factsandfolklore. Or just post in the comments below.
I'm looking forward to reading what you share.
The Language of Flowers: A Miscellany by Mandy Kirkby
Mistletoe and other plant parasites, The Guardian garden blog, 14 December 2016, by Robbie Blackhall-Miles