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Featured in the December 2019 issue

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Steffie Shields heralds the special joys of mistletoe.

At this festive time of the year, you will probably wrap up with coat and scarf to venture out for a bracing walk with family and friends… just to get a breath of fresh air and clear the head, away from all that gaudy tinsel and wrapping paper razzmatazz. Those crisp days, where you expel mini-clouds of vapour as you talk, offer a perfect opportunity to seek out fading, late-lingering ‘sugar-coated’ roses and frosted leaves or seed-heads clasping crystals of snow like diamond clusters! 

Head off to undiscovered country lanes or wide-open spaces further afield – perhaps to such historic landscapes as Boultham, Burghley, or Doddington Hall. If you do traipse along avenues and through woodland, rather than looking down as your boots scuff forlorn, decaying leaves, look up!  Scan the branches of the old park trees. Chances are you might come across surprising, great roundels of mistletoe. The stark winter silhouettes of stately veteran trees, particularly those with a soft bark like limes and poplars, are often laced with random baubles hanging in the breeze as if by magic! 

Mistletoe bunches dangling from low-slung branches of old hawthorn or apple trees are naturally easier to reach for harvesting.  Notice, amongst a muddling network of leaves like propellers, those creamy viscus berries, glistening in low winter sun, as if attractive pearls pasted into the junctions on each stem. When all around is barren and brown, or grey-white with snow and mist, one can appreciate how people in early ages were attracted to harvest this weird, olive green plant. They chose to bring bunches into their homes to hang up as decorations to reflect the firelight, even though its milky berries are poisonous to humans and domestic pets. Was this their way, whatever fortune they shared together, to commune and celebrate their safe, dry dwellings? Perhaps tall tales told, as families endured dark, long winter nights, huddled together round the hearth, were first woven intentionally to offer those young or frail a sense of reassurance and the protection of their homes from terrifying witches and demons. 

Strange how this mysterious semi-parasitic plant, Viscum album or European mistletoe (the only species native to the British Isles), has so many legends and associations reaching back to pre-Christian pagan times.  Hence you will never see it used among Christmas decorations in your local church. Yet mistletoe encourages the handing on, from generation to generation, of the most Christian virtues of love and peace. 

Whether Roman, Greek or Norse, the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe carries on – thank goodness! Many a new romance has begun that way in this special season, and many a lasting relationship bonded with a partner.  In France a bunch of mistletoe is seen as a gift of luck for the New Year! Certainly, mistletoe has always played a simple and special part in our family’s Christmas traditions, successfully stirring hearts and old memories. Always a pleasant chore, I like to hang it in the hall, tied with an eye-catching red ribbon with three tiny and shiny bells amongst the stems – so I can reach up and tinkle the bells if someone has failed to notice that I am seeking a kiss!  Recently, deciding to paint mistletoe, my painting ‘Nature’s Baubles’ now decorates my bedroom wall all year round! 

Antique fairs might offer reminders of embattled times. Often as not, during World War One, simple images of mistletoe were chosen and sent from the Front to loved ones back home as a symbol of peace with poignant messages of love. Hard to imagine those beautiful dainty, silk-embroidered postcards were once handled over a hundred years ago by brave, muddy young soldiers. Might we, for once, learn from the past? As we go to the polls to elect a new parliament this 12th December, should we make this election even more unusual by daring to hang mistletoe above the door of all the polling stations? Imagine! We might just unite this divided country with common purpose and caring, in a small but intentional gesture to bring peace, better harmony and understanding amongst our politicians… and ourselves!

When washing the dishes, looking out to the old orchard, I wish a passing, speckled mistle thrush would fly in with a favoured berry or two of mistletoe in its beak. It could then wipe the sticky seed to germinate in cracks in the bark of one or two of our apple trees to produce our own plants. This would revive warm memories of family Christmases and those magical winter forays exploring our precious local landscapes. Sadly, the decline in orchards seems to have led to the decline in these splendid birds. However, my wintry view also includes a close-clipped and rounded, small holly tree. A few years ago, I planted a pretty variegated ivy at its feet. So now it amuses me to spy both the holly and the ivy entwined! I wish many Christmas joys and blessings, and above all peace to Lincolnshire Life readers everywhere.

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