Earlier this month I contributed to a local WW1 exhibition with some documents and correspondence relating to my Great Uncle Clifford, who died in July 1918 as a Prisoner of War. He shipped to France on 2nd April and was immediately sent to serve in the trenches but on 27th May, after just 8 weeks at war, he was captured. Several official ‘I am a Prisoner of War’ postcards were sent home and a longer letter written (but never sent). He died from ‘cardiac weakness’ in July – but neither the army nor his family got this news until January 1919. My grandmother, his sister, had been hopefully meeting the troop trains arriving home ever since the Armistice in November 1918 – but her brother had been dead for months. His last letter was in his effects.
What has this tragic story got to do with mistletoe? Nothing directly. But it has reminded me of the use of mistletoe as a good luck motif – particularly in that war. Mistletoe was once strongly associated with luck – and many of the older traditions and legends can be interpreted as suggesting it has some sort of protective role. The popular kissing custom has, today, rather eclipsed many of these older traditions – but 100 years ago more customs may have still thrived. The location of the fighting in northern France and Belgium may have helped as French-speaking areas, even today, still hold on to the custom of mistletoe for luck – a ‘Porte Bonheur’.
This tradition was, by the time of WW1, often manifested in France through pictorial postcards, often celebrating the New Year – and also with art nouveau style objets d’art (see some here) often embellished with the phrase ‘au gui l’an neuf’ – mistletoe for the New Year, effectively wishing the recipient a lucky and successful New Year.
During the war a variant of these cards, in the form of the embroidered so-called ‘silk’ postcards, were often used. Such silk cards were a popular item to post home from the front and many with mistletoe imagery, linked to some good luck message, survive.
Here’s one sold on ebay this week. Now, whether the mistletoe imagery was chosen by the British tommy for good luck – or whether the local producers (these were all made in France) simply made them to reflect their own local custom of mistletoe and luck is not known. It could be either, or both.
But I like to think it was both – and that the man in the trenches didn’t just associate mistletoe with kissing – instead seeing it as a luck symbol too.
I’ll finish with this picture of three WW1 British soldiers just about to celebrate Christmas. They are all wearing mistletoe in their hats – and it is perfectly placed for kissing. But, as there was, one assumes, no-one appealing enough to want to kiss, perhaps that mistletoe was actually being worn for luck.
Unconvinced? Just look (like they are) at the chicken – which possesses no mistletoe and is, I confidently predict, now completely out of luck…
Want to know more about mistletoe? Visit the Mistletoe Directory page for links to mistletoe information, and to sites where you can buy grow-kits, books and cards…