The Hymns and Carols of Christmas


Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 2, pp. 412-13

This sacred epidendron is described by Virgil in the 6th Æneid :—

"Quale solet silvis brumali frigore Viscum
Fronde virere nova, quod non sua seminat Arbos,
Et croceo fœtu teretes circumdare truncos:
Talis erat species," &c.

Christie observes hereupon: "We find by the allusion of Virgil, who compared the golden bough Ininfernis to the mistletoe that the use of this plant was not unknown in the religious ceremonies of the antients, particularly the Greeks, of whose poets he was the acknowledged imitator." Inquiry, 1801, p. 131. A writer in Willis’s "Current Notes " for August, 1852, says:— "The Gaelic name for this plant forms a singular link and clue to its real meaning; it is uile-ice, the mistletoe, the all-heal — 'lus sior unine a tharuingeas a bhith o phlannt eile, an ever-green tree that draws its existence from another plant.’ It evidently refers us to the Saxon Se Hælend, the Healer, the Saviour of Mankind. The Saxon mis-el-tu is a compound of three Sancrit words, viz. Mas, vishnu (the Messiah): tal, a pit (metaph, the womb) : and tu, motion to or from . . . . The ivy and mistletoe being evergreens, denote the everlasting life through faith in the promised Messiah. Kissing under the mistletoe has now lost its import: its primary meaning is obvious. I believe the . . . branch, Ezekiel viii. 17 refers to the mistletoe, the viscum in Virgil’s "Æneid," vi. 205: but the Hebrew signifies a branch not torn off, nor broken off, but cut from the tree."

Mr. G. Williams tells us, that "Guidhel Misletoe, a magical shrub, appears to be the forbidden tree in the middle of the trees of Eden; for in the Edda, the mistletoe is said to be Balder’s death, who yet perished through blindness and a woman." Gents. Mag., Feb. 1701. Selden, in Notes en the 9th Song of the "Polyolbion," tells us "that on this Druidical custome (of going out to cut the mistletoe) some haue grounded that vnto this day vsed in France; where the younger country fellowes, about New-years-tide, in euery village giue the wish of good fortune at the inhabitants dores, with this acclamation, 'Au guy l’an neuf,’ (i.e. to the mistletoe this New year); which, as I remember, in Rabelais is read all one word, for the same purpose." He cites here "Jo. Goropius Gallic. 5, et alii." "Aguilanleu, par corruption, pour An gui l’an neuf: ad Viscum, Annus novus." — Menage. See also Cotgrave in verbo "Au-guy-l’an neuf." The Celtic name for the oak was gue or guy.

Yallancey, in his "Grammar of the Irish Language," observes: "The mistletoe was sacred to the Druids, because not only its berries, but its leaves also, grow in clusters of three united to one stock. The Christian Irish hold the Scamroy, or Shamrock, sacred in like manner, because it has three leaves united to one stalk." Borlase says: "When the end of the year approached, the old Druids marched with great solemnity to gather the mistletoe of the oak, in order to present it to Jupiter, inviting all the world to assist at this ceremony with these words : ‘The New year is at hand, gather the Mistletoe.’ " He cites Keysler to prove that "the footsteps of this custom still remain in some parts of France." Antiq. of Cornwell, 91-2.

Stukeley mentions the introduction of mistletoe into York Cathedral on Christmas Eve as a remain of Druidism. Speaking of the Winter Solstice, our Christmas, he says : "This was the most respectable festival of our Druids, called Yule-tide; when mistletoe, which they called All-heal, was carried in their hands, and laid on their altars, as an emblem of the salutiferous advent of Messiah. This mistletoe they cut off the trees with their upright hatchets of brass, called Celts, put upon the ends of their staffs, which they carried in their hands. Innumerable are these instruments found all over the British Isles. Medallic History of Carausius, ii., 163-4. "The custom is still preserved in the North, and was lately at York: on the Eve of Christmas-Day they carry mistletoe to the high altar of the Cathedral, and proclaim a public and universal liberty, pardon, and freedom to all sorts of inferior and even wicked people at the gates of the city, towards the four quarters of Heaven." But Brand was of opinion, although Gay mentions the mistletoe among those evergreens that were put up in churches, that it never entered those sacred edifices but by mistake, or ignorance of the sextons; for it was the heathenish and prophane plant, as having been of such distinction in the pagan rites of Druidism, and it therefore had its place assigned it in kitchens where it was hung up in great state with its white berries, and whatever female chanced to stand under it, the young man present had a right or claimed one of saluting her, and of plucking off a berry at each kiss. I have made many diligent inquiries after the truth of this. I learnt at Bath that it never came into the churches there.

An old sexton at Teddington in Middlesex informed Brand that some mistletoe was once put up in the church there, but was by the clergyman immediately ordered to be taken away. Coles, speaking of mistletoe, says: "It is carryed many miles to set up in houses about Christmas time, when it is adorned with a white glistening berry." Sir John Colbatch, in his dissertation concerning mistletoe 1720, which he strongly recommends as a medicine very likely to subdue not only the epilepsy, but all other convulsive disorders, observes that, this beautiful plant must have been designed by the Almighty "for further and more noble purposes than barely to feed thrushes, or to be hung up superstitiously in houses, to drive away evil spirits." He tells us also, that "the high veneration in which the Druids were anciently held by people of all ranks, proceeded in a great measure from the wonderful cures they wrought by means of the mistletoe of the oak: this tree being sacred to them, but none so that had not the mistletoe upon them." The mistletoe of the oak, which is very rare, was vulgarly said to be a cure for wind-ruptures in children. Colbatch asserts that the kind that is found upon the apple is good for fits. But Sir John endeavours to evince that that of the crab, the lime, the pear, or any other tree, is of equal virtue. In the " Statis. Acc. of Scot." vol. xiii. p. 520, parish of Kiltarlity, Inverness, it is said, "In Lovat’s Garden are a great number of standard trees. On two standard apple trees here mistletoe grows, which is a very rare plant in this country." For a curious story about the mistletoe, see Willis’s Current Notes for May, 1853.

Christie speaks of the respect the Northern nations entertained for the mistletoe, and of the Colts and Goths being distinct in the instance of their equally venerating the mistletoe about the time of the year when the sun approached the winter solstice. Inquiry, 1801, 2nd Dissert., p. 129.

See also:

Decking Churches And Houses With Evergreens At Christmas, John Brand, Observations on Popular Antiquities. With the Additions of Sir Henry Ellis. London: Chatto and Windus, 1888, pp. 278-283.

Rebuking The Parson from Washington Irving, Old Christmas – From the Sketch Book of Washington Irving (London: Macmillan & Co., Fifth Edition, 1886), p. 96; Illustrated by Randolph Caldecott.

Editor's Note: I regret that I am unable to provide a translation of any Latin passages.

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