The origins of Mistletoe as a Christmas decoration go far back into our Pagan origins. Druids considered the Mistletoe – a parasitic plant that grows on willow and apple, and other species – to be a sacred plant and a very powerful healing and magic plant, good for the heart.
Roman author Pliny wrote in the first century CE that the “Druids hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing.”
And it appears that Mistletoe was important across the Celtic Fringe. In an article by Susa Morgan Black shared in Druidry.org (The Sacred Plant of the Druids).
There are three words or phrases for “Mistletoe” in Scottish Gaelic which gives an indication of the high esteem the plant was held amongst the ancient Scots:
Uil-ioc – All heal or make whole
Draoidh-lus – Druid’s herb
Sùgh an Daraich – Juice, sap or dearest of the Oak
In Irish, it is Drualus, which is “herb of the Druids”.
In Welsh, it is uchelwydd. Uchel translates as “high”. The New Welsh Dictionary by Christopher Davies says of mistletoe: “Uchelwydd. Planhigyn yn tyfu ar goed eraill ac iddo aeron gwyn.” (Translation by Sam from the OBOD Message Board: “Mistletoe. A plant which grows on other trees and with it berries white.”)
In Brittany, it is called Herbe de la Croix, after an old legend that the cross was made from this wood, after which God punished it by changing it into a parasite. (Grieve, Vol. II, pg. 547).
In the Middle Ages in England, Holy Boughs were created with a figure of the Christ Child and kept in the home. Visitors would be given a kiss of peace at the Holy Bough for forgiveness for any transgressions or ill will during the year. Eventually the Christian church banned Mistletoe from church decorations due to its pagan associations, but it has clearly made its way back into our modern festivities!
By the Middle Ages, the Holy Bough and mistle became the kissing bough, although some observed both traditions. A berry would be picked from the Mistletoe and exchanged for a kiss. When all the berries were gone . . . well, you would need more Mistletoe if you wanted another kiss! These days the kissing bough has been replaced, in most cases, by a simple sprig of mistletoe (often artificial!).