Christmas Traditions: Mistletoe

Here were kept up the old games of hoodman blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles, steal the white loaf, bob apple, and snap dragon; the Yule-clog and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe with its white berries hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids. Washington Irving

Kissing under the mistletoe has long been a part of American Christmas tradition. But just what is mistletoe and how did its association with Christmas evolve?

Mistletoe is a partial parasite (a “hemiparasite”) the grows on the branches of trunk of trees, penetrating the host with its own roots. While it is capable of surviving on its own, it rarely does so. There are two types of mistletoe. The type commonly used as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens) is native to North America and grows from New Jersey to Florida and into the interior. The other type,Viscum album, is European, and grows on apple or oak trees. Its white berries are toxic. Because mistletoe remains green when the tree itself drops its foliage, the Greeks. Celts, and Germans believed that it had mystical powers as the source of the tree’s life. Through the centuries it was used as a ceremonial plant, becoming associated with many folklore customs. The traditions which began with the European mistletoe were transferred to the similar American plant with the process of immigration and settlement.

The common name of the plant is derived from the ancient belief that mistletoe was propagated from bird droppings. This belief was related to the then-accepted principle that life could spring spontaneously from dung. It was observed in ancient times that mistletoe would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings. “Mistel” is the Anglo-Saxon word for “dung,” and “tan” is the word for “twig”. So, mistletoe means “dung-on-a-twig”. By the sixteenth century, botanists had discovered that the mistletoe plant was spread by seeds which had passed through the digestive tract of birds. One of the earliest written references to this appeared in England, in 1532, in a Herbal published by Turner. Botanists of the time also observed that the sticky berry seeds of the mistletoe tended to cling to the bills of birds. When the birds cleaned their bills by rubbing them against the branches or bark of trees, the the seeds were further scattered.

From ancient times, then, mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore. It was considered a bestower of life and fertility, a protectant against poison, and an aphrodisiac.

The mistletoe of the sacred oak was especially sacred to the ancient Celtic Druids. On the sixth night of the moon white-robed Druid priests would cut mistletoe from the sacred with a golden sickle. The cutting ritual came to symbolize the emasculation of the old King by his successor. It was gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices, and the custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is a survival of the Druid and other pre-Christian traditions. Mistletoe is still ceremonially plucked on mid-summer eve in some Celtic and Scandinavian countries.

In the Middle Ages and later, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits, or were placed over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches. It was also believed that the oak mistletoe could extinguish fire. This was associated with an earlier belief that the mistletoe itself could come to the tree during a flash of lightning. In parts of England and Wales farmers would give the Christmas bunch of mistletoe to the first cow that calved in the New Year. This was thought to bring good luck to the entire herd.

Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia, and later with primitive marriage rites. Mistletoe was believed to have the power of bestowing fertility, and the dung from which the mistletoe was thought to arise was also said to have “life-giving” power. In Scandinavia, it was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses kiss and make-up. In some parts of England, the Christmas mistletoe is burned on the twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry.

Mistletoe is the “official floral emblem” of Oklahoma.

And for those who wish to observe the correct etiquette: a man should pluck a berry when he kisses a woman under the mistletoe, and when the last berry is gone, there should be no more kissing. But these days, mistletoe is sold without its toxic berries, so that custom must be overlooked. Merry, merry Christmas. Let the kissing begin!

[Adapted from http://www.gardenline.usask.ca/%5D

A Few Unusual Victorian New Year’s Traditions

Happy New Year! In case you can’t make it to Times Square to watch the ball drop, here are a few unique ways to usher in 2022. Most of these practices come from the British Isles. (Excerpted from a Mental Floss article by Keith Johnson).

First Footing: Throw NYE party at you home, but to avoid bad luck, be sure not to allow a woman to be the first to cross your threshhold.

Take in, then take out: Don’t take anything out of the house without first bringing something in. “Take out, then take in/ Bad luck will begin. Take in, then take out/ Good luck comes about.”

Throw bread at the door: People baked a “barmbrack ”, an unusually large loaf of bread, on New Year’s Eve. The man of the house took three bites, then threw the loaf against the door, while those gathered prayed ”that cold, want or hunger might not enter” in the coming year. Hope they didn’t waste that bread.

Attend a “Watch Night” service: In the 1740’s, John Wesley (founder of Methodism) revived the ancient tradition of holding long, contemplative church services, to give coal miners something uplifting to do lieu of drinking the night away in a pub. By the 19th century, this had become a NYE tradition.

“Dipping” : Open a Bible to a random page and, without looking, point to a random passage. The excerpt selected was thought to predict the fortune of the dipper. This custom was widely used at other times to predict things.

Silly Resolutions: This custom sounds like a fun party game. Each player writes a silly resolution on a piece of paper and places it place in a bowl with all the others. Everyone draws a resolution and reads it aloud. Some suggestions from an 1896 games book include “I must stop smoking in my sleep” and ”I must walk with my right foot on my left side.”

Send some New Year Cards:

In case you’re not tired of addressing all those Christmas cards. You’ve gotta wonder about this one, though……

No matter no you choose to celebrate, best wishes for a happy, healthy 2022!

Monday Morning Poem: The Pumpkin

excerpt from The Pumpkin, by John  Greenleaf Whittier

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest;
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board
The old broken links of affection restored;
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before;
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye,
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

Vintage Valentine Memories

Some of you undoubtedly remember with fondness the pre-politically correct days when schools could have holiday parties in classrooms without causing an uproar over personal rights. Letters were sent home to parents asking for volunteers to provide cupcakes (almost always handmade) and punch, along with lists of all your classmates. There was a box at the front of the class that all the “pupils”  had a part in decorating with paper hearts and cherubs, and each child brought in a stack of valentines, signed and sealed at home, one for each classmate. Valentines would be made ahead of time during class to take home to parents. On the holiday itself, there’d be a celebration in the afternoon, after lunch, with the assistance of the official “room mothers”, valentines were distributed, and the fancy cupcakes would be devoured, more than one per child if there were extras. Then each kid would stuff his or her valentines into a specially decorated envelope made from construction paper, help clean up the party trash, and when the final bell rang, gather coat and mittens and head for home.

 

Those more innocent days are now but a memory, although from what I understand, there are still some Valentine related activities in some primary grades. What are your memories?

Christmas Traditions: How to Make Sugarplums

Twas the Night Before Christmas, by Clement Moore. It’s become an indelible part of the American Christmas tradition, and many of us know it by heart. The line I’ve always wondered about is:

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads….


So I set out to discover what this delectable sounding treat might be. The dictionary defines a sugarplum as a small round or oval piece of sugary candy. Knowledge about exactly what it’s made of is considerably less exact. Perhaps the name arose from its resemblance to a small plum, or from the practice of preserving plums in sugar, a way to keep some summer fruits around for a while longer. No matter. Recipes using real plums date from at least the 16th century. (The sugarplum referred to in the Victorian poem are composed of a mix of ingredients, including dried fruits and nuts.)

The making of genuine sugarplums is quite time consuming, although it is not difficult.

Recipe:

1 pound of plums

2½ pounds of white granulated sugar

16 ounces of  water plus 2 Tbls water

1. Make a thin sugar syrup by mixing ½ lb of sugar and 16 oz. of water in a large pot.

2. Slit the plums down the seam and place them into the syrup so they are fully covered. Poach gently until just tender. Cool, cover and refrigerate overnight to allow the plums to absorb the sweetness.

3. Make a heavy sugar syrup by mixing 2 pounds of sugar and 2 tablespoons of water in a large pot. Slowly boil until a drop of syrup in cold water makes a thick but soft ball. Transfer plums from the thin syrup to the heavy syrup and remove from heat, making certain plums are covered by the heavy syrup. Allow to cool to room temperature. Transfer to a glass or ceramic bowl, cover tightly, and refrigerate for about a week.

Once flavor has developed, separate plums onto parchment paper and place them in a warm (170 degree) oven, turning them every half hour until dry (or use a home dehydrator.)

Entertain visions of the Sugar Plum Fairy while enjoying this traditional confection!

Monday Morning Poem: Christmas Pageants

by Raymond A. Foss (2006)

Small voices, raised to the rafters
singing their hearts out in the familiar story
the tale of the babe and his parents
sharing his birth with donkeys and lamb,
with shepherds and wise men from the east
marveling at the wonder of his birth
in that humble place so long ago
hearing the words of the story again
richer perhaps in the telling with little voices
echoing throughout the sanctuary
a bit noisier perhaps; but a wonderful
place to be

Monday Morning Poem: In Flanders Fields


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row, 
That mark our place, and in the sky, 
The larks, still bravely singing, fly, 

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset 
glow, 
Loved and were loved, and now we 
lie
In Flanders fields. 

Take up our quarrel with the foe! 
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high! 
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Easter Traditions: Polish Babka Bread

My mother’s family came to the US from Poland, first to Deep River, CT, then moving to Buffalo, NY. When I was little, after church and after my brother and I had found all the hidden Easter eggs, we’d all sit down to Easter brunch. The menu never varied: juice, fresh kielbasa, boiled eggs, and babka. No chocolate till we’d all finished brunch. This year, I’ve decided to make a babka instead of settling for the dry kind sold  in  stores.

bunnyline

This recipe is from Old Farmer’s Almanac.

  • 1 yeast cake, or 1 package dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup lukewarm water
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) soft butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 egg yolks
  • grated rind of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 5 cups flour
  • 1 cup milk, scalded and cooled to lukewarm
  • 1 cup white raisins
  • 1/3 cup fine bread crumbs
  • 1 egg yolk, beaten
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1/4 cup chopped almonds

Add yeast to lukewarm water and let stand until softened or dissolved, about 5 minutes. Cream butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, add salt to egg yolks and beat until thick; then add to sugar and butter mixture. Add yeast and water, lemon rind, and cinnamon. Add flour alternately with milk and beat well to make a smooth batter. Add raisins and knead by hand until batter leaves the fingers. Let rise in a warm place until double (about 1-1/4 hours). Punch down and let rise again until double.

Generously butter a fluted tube pan. Sprinkle with  fine bread crumbs, sugar, and if desired, honey,   and fill pan  with dough. Brush with mixture of egg yolk beaten with 2 tablespoons water. Sprinkle with almonds and let rise again. Bake in preheated 350 degrees F oven for 30 minutes.