Tis’ the Season: Mistletoe and Magic


I love Christmas. From a brightly lit tree to sparkling icicles and a fresh fallen snow to gathering together for a meal or spending time with family, Christmas was always magical for me. I love picking out that perfect gift for people, seeing their faces light up in surprise. Even now, away from most of my family, I’m forging new traditions with my partner David, mixing some of mine with some of his and creating new ones that are special to us.

So, its no surprise that when I was researching info on the Celtic traditions and practices for my next book, I wandered into the realm of winter celebrations. While I am an American, my ancestry hails from all over Northern Europe, including Scotland, Ireland and England meaning that I am a mix of many ancestral beliefs including the Celts, bringing a personal flair and curiosity to the research. As I started wandering down rabbit holes in regards to Celtic winter lore, the more I got excited about sharing it on the blog. After all, who doesn’t want to know more about cool stuff?

However, I soon discovered that researching anything having to do with Christmas or winter solstice celebrations, lore or traditions is a daunting task. There is a lot out there! Many different countries and religions have different beliefs and practices surrounding the season. Many of these celebrations and traditions have changed and morphed over time. Some cultures borrow similar elements from one another. Plus there’s the resources. One search on one word got me numerous blogs who all had different things to say about the subject. I knew I needed to pare it down, or both you and I were going to get over our heads very quickly. So, I decided to look at just a few of the symbols of Christmas whose meanings and reasons behind their use you may not have known. This week I decided to talk about something that we’ve all seen, but probably dismissed. The Mistletoe.

What I Knew About Mistletoe

When I was trying to think of what aspect of Christmas I wanted to talk about, a lot of things sprung to mind. None of them was mistletoe. But as I started researching into the Celtic lore of winter, I realized that the mistletoe was a huge part of the culture. To me, mistletoe was just the thing at Christmas that someone hung in a doorway with the expectation that if you stood under it, you had to kiss whomever was next to you. I knew it was a plant, and somewhere in my brain I thought I remembered hearing that it was toxic if ingested. So, imagine my surprise when I learned that there was a whole lot more to this unassuming little plant.

A Celtic Solstice

First off, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the difference between Christmas and the Celtic celebrations.

Christmas was a Christian celebration that can be traced back to Roman times, although it took many centuries for its popularity to rise to become a mainstream religious celebration like it is today. While the theories as to why it developed vary, the purpose of the celebration was to gather and celebrate the birth of Christ. While the Bible doesn’t state an exact date for that event, one of the theories as to why December 25th was chosen was that it was related to the Easter celebrations, the two working in tandem: the winter birth of Christ, the spring Rising of Christ and the beginning of a new life (1).

This echoes the traditions of practices and religions that had been in place for thousands of years before Christmas came on the scene. Many cultures, including Rome before they adopted Christianity, celebrated the Winter Solstice – the day of the year when the sun is lowest in the sky and the shortest hours of light and warmth. In the Northern Hemisphere, by the modern calendar, this day falls somewhere between December 20 and 23 (5). This is balanced by the Summer Solstice, when the sun is at its highest and has the longest light hours. Both were often celebrated, each solstice honoring a different part of the life cycle (as well as the Spring and Fall equinoxes). The Roman Winter Solstice celebration was called dies solis invicti nati “day of the birth of the unconquered sun” (1). In Irish traditions it is called Meán Geimhridh or Grianstad an Gheimhridh. In Welsh it is called Alban Arthan (pronounced AHL-bahn Ar-than (4)) or “the Light of Winter” or Alban Arthan “the Light of Arthur” (2). It is also commonly known as “Yule” (3).

Many early Celtic traditions are centered around the Druids, the religious figures who led the ceremonies. They were also magicians, healers, and judges. As the earliest Celts did not have a written tradition, much of what we know of the early Celtic traditions comes from outside sources (such as Pliny the Elder, a Roman philosopher) so many things must be taken with a grain of salt. But these sources do provide a view of this culture stating that it revolved around what nature, weather and the planets were doing. This connection may even be seen in the names of the Druids themselves. There is a theory that the word “Druid” comes from the Old Celtic words deru “oak tree” and weid “to see or know”. A possible combination of these being translated as “The one who knows the oak” (3).

Oak trees were sacred to the Druids. And what grows on oak trees? Mistletoe (thought I had forgotten, didn’t you?) But more on that later.

The Mistletoe Mystique

Mistletoe is a plant, but unlike a lot of other plants, this one doesn’t grow in soil. It grows on other trees. It’s called either a parasite or a hemi-parasite, depending on what site I looked at. Basically, it means the plant feeds off of the host tree, without benefitting the tree and in most cases hurts it by diminishing its nutrition or defenses against disease or other invaders. A really interesting aspect of mistletoe is that it is an umbrella term that covered hundreds of species spread all around the world. These species, unlike other plants, are differentiated not so much by their characteristics but by the type of host plant that they infect.

Mistletoe plants on a tree.

Mistletoes are evergreen, meaning that when the deciduous trees that they are inhabiting go dormant for the winter, they are still green and bright, even producing berries. This symbol of life in the midst of death may be why it was such a huge part of Celtic winter celebrations, as proof that the world would be reborn and spring would come again.

Mistletoe is also known as Bird Lime, All-Heal, Devil’s fuge, and Iscade (4).

Mistletoe the Healer

Mistletoe is toxic. Ingesting any part of it, especially the berries, can cause serious effects. So, imagine my surprise when researching and finding out that mistletoe has been used for thousands of years as a healing plant.

Mistletoe has anecdotally be shown to have been used to treat everything from hypertension, diabetes mellitus, inflammatory conditions, irregular menstrations, menopause, epilepsy, arthritis and is even being studied as a possible cancer treatment. Mistletoe can and has been used as medicinal extracts (including injections), infusions, tinctures and even teas (4).

Not bad for an unassuming plant, huh?

Mistletoe the Magical

Like I stated earlier, mistletoe was a huge part of Celtic celebrations. The one website I found described the winter ceremony where the Druids, dressed in white robes, would go into the forest. One would climb the tree with a golden sickle, the rest waiting below with a white cloth. The Druid would use the sickle to cut the plant, allowing it to fall to the waiting sheet (it was very important that it not touch the ground). Then as the plant was hung, two white oxen would be sacrificed, all while offering prayers of prosperity for the year to come (4).

Mistletoe meant more than prosperity for the coming year. It was also a powerful fertility symbol, believed to have the power to make barren animals fertile and bear progeny (4). Mistletoe was also used in “coel-creni” or “omen sticks” that were used to show treasure, or get rid of evil spirits. Their power over spirits was because it was a guide to the other worlds. It is said that early Christians who came into contact with this lore tried to ban mistletoe from being used in celebrations in the church, and yet it still somehow found its way to being associated with doves and being seen as a symbol of good luck and peace (6).

Mistletoe, Yule and Christmas OH MY!

Our modern Christmas traditions, including mistletoe, still echo these long ago traditions and beliefs. Why do we hang mistletoe? Perhaps because it is a creature of the air, living in a tree high above the ground. The ancient Druids believed that if it touched the ground, it would lose its magic. Why do we kiss underneath it? Perhaps because it has a history thousands of years long as a powerful fertility symbol. Why do we only do it at Christmastime? Perhaps because it is the darkest time of year, when most of the natural world is dead, and yet this lives bright and beautiful, driving away darkness and bringing us hope.

Whether you believe the theories that Christmas was just chosen as part of the Christian year to fit into their ideology, or was chosen to usurp other Winter Solstice celebrations (1), the fact is that many of these symbols of ancient religions were incorporated into the Christmas celebration and are still around today as this holiday grows more secular and is evolving. I was amazed at how much there was just on the little mistletoe, and let me say I’m not exaggerating when there’s a ton more on this subject. I only scratched the surface, and a lot of my resources centered around just the Irish part of the context. I probably could have written a book with all the sources and information I was finding (would anyone read a book about mistletoe?).

Check out next week when I go into the lore of the Christmas tree and the week after that when I combine my love of cooking with the blog as I attempt to make my own dessert Yule log and talk about the real Yule log that we’ve all heard about, but what do we really know about it?

Thanks for reading and coming along on the adventure. I hope you enjoyed learning a little bit more of the backstory of Christmas traditions as I did.


  1. Brittania “Christmas” retrieved fromhttps://www.britannica.com/topic/Christmas
  2. Blackwell, Selene “Pronunciation of Druid Holidays” retrieved from https://seleneblackwell.tumblr.com/post/171034988393/pronunciation-of-druid-holidays
  3. “The Celtic Origins of Kissing Under the Mistletoe at Christmas” retrieved from https://irishmyths.com/2021/12/15/mistletoe-history/#:~:text=Known%20by%20the%20ancient%20Celts,make%20barren%20animals%20%E2%80%9Cfruitful.%E2%80%9D
  4. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health “European mistletoe” retrieved from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/european-mistletoe
  5. Kneale, Alistair “Celtic roots of Christmas traditions” retrieved from https://www.transceltic.com/pan-celtic/celtic-roots-of-christmas-traditions
  6. Bonwick, James “The Mistletoe” Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions (1894) retrieved from https://www.libraryireland.com/Druids/The-Mistletoe.php

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