Many of my mistletoe talks this season have had a history theme, looking back at mistletoe in days gone by – both ancient (myth, legend etc) and modern, describing how Christmas demand for mistletoe from the 19th century onwards made it a saleable product, not just a curious tree parasite.
The trade in mistletoe grew and grew – built on the growing popularity of the kissing custom in the Victorian era and a desire, requirement even, for every home to have some mistletoe at Christmas. This demand led to a massive trade in harvested mistletoe, mostly from apple orchards where it is easily cut. And most of those orchards were, some still are, in the south west midlands of England and, of course, abroad in France where mistletoe grows abundantly.
Stories of this trade are fascinating – it was very significant, with huge amounts being shipped by train around the country, across the channel from France and even, before the advent of air travel, shipped from Britain out to Australia, South Africa etc. The ‘colonies’ wanted proper mistletoe, even if it was a few weeks in transit and a bit shrivelled on arrival.
These days the quantities traded are much smaller – though most is still cut from apple trees in SW English midland and French orchards. Firm trade figures are almost impossible to obtain as so much is traded informally now – there are no tonnages for ships or railways, it’s just cut and freighted in lorries, vans and trailers with no documentation required. The only regular source for trade figures is Tenbury Mistletoe Auction, but even this only give a small snapshot of the overall trade as only a fraction of the trade, and certainly none of the imported mistletoe (which is probably the majority), passes though here. So, data from here shouldn’t be used in scientific analyses of the trade (you know what I’m talking about Jeff!).
But if there are no overall trade figures how can I say quantities have decreased? Well, technically I can’t, obviously. But several factors suggest major change – not least the amount available to harvest is much less as there are far fewer suitable orchards here or abroad. Another major factor is the much more laidback approach to kissing we have these days – mistletoe is no longer needed by many people for a quick smooch with a stranger! And then there’s plastic mistletoe – a trend that’s grown alongside artificial Christmas Trees – why worry about buying the real thing when you can use the plastic imitation you hang every year, kept in the loft the rest of the time with the lights and baubles?
Stats are very hard to come by though – the National Trust recently announced that in a survey of 240 members, when asked what Christmas traditions they no longer took part in, 31% said they no longer hang mistletoe. A small sample but, if it is reflecting the wider population, that’s a third not using mistletoe at all. And it’s not clear whether the other two-thirds use the real thing or plastic.
But that’s only a small sample, and just one survey. I recall a survey back in 2007, apparently of 3000 people, which said 9% actually pick their own mistletoe – which sounds great and suggests a thriving tradition until you realise that most of Britain has hardly any mistletoe to pick, so it’s very unlikely 9% of people even have an opportunity to pick their own. There must have been something wrong with the wording of the question, or the interpreting of the results – unless all the respondents lived in the south-west midlands. Statistics need to be treated with some caution!
And, talking of stats to be treated with caution here are the stats, so far, for the Tenbury Auctions this year, with corresponding stats from the same week in 2017 and 2018. The most recent auction was yesterday but stats for that aren’t available yet.
Mistletoe 1st Quality £/kg
Mistletoe 2nd Quality £/kg
Tuesday 26th November 2019
1.50 to average 1.00
0.50 to average 0.30
Tuesday 27th November 2018
3.00 to average 1.75
1.00 to average 0.50
Tuesday 28th November 2017
2.50 to average 1.25
0.75 per kg to average 0.25
Make of that what you will – I would caution against any serious analysis – these are just indicators of prices at one venue. The good stuff (1st quality) is the material with good ripe white berries and deep green leaves, the other (2nd quality) had, mostly, just as many berries but in that week some were underripe and not fully white and some had the leggy-ness or the yellower leaves that always reduce the value. The only major difference to last year’s mistletoe is, from appearances, slightly smaller berries overall and perhaps slightly later ripening (arguably causing those smaller berries).
A good turn out of both people and mistletoe lots for today’s mistletoe auction at Tenbury Wells. Mistletoe looking good, lots of berries, again, though perhaps not quite as plump as some previous years. A few lots had yellower leaves – which won’t fetch as good a price as the greener stuff. But there were masses of nice green stuff too.
Some lively bidding for lovely mistletoe!
Only two auctions this year – the second and last is next week, Tuesday 3rd December.
Slide show of scenes before and during below:
More Mistletoe Information: for general mistletoe info visit the Mistletoe Pages website.
The phrase Mistletoe Market is fairly uncommon here in the UK – the mistletoe auctions at Tenbury Wells are sometimes called this, but not often. We also have a few Mistletoe Fairs – some more mistletoey than others (of which more in another post soon) – but we have few events formally called a Mistletoe Market.
But cross the atlantic and the US is brimming with ‘mistletoe markets’, some lasting just a day or so, some lasting weeks, some as early as November, some not until nearer Christmas. These are real, regular, pre-Christmas phenomena.
So what are they, and where, if at all, does mistletoe feature? Mistletoe in the US is, as regular Mistletoe Diary readers will know, a different and much less attractive species than the species we have here in Europe, so it would be surprising if these markets were actually about mistletoe – the local species aren’t really special enough!
And of course they’re not about mistletoe, the word is used as a label for a seasonal pre-Christmas retail event. But that doesn’t matter – it’s still a reflection of mistletoe as a cultural plant, harking back centuries, possibly millennia, to mid-winter customs with the plant.
Many of these Mistletoe Markets are run by good causes – Junior Leagues, Schools and other community groups. Others are run by city authorities and a few seem to be firmly commercially-run.
Mistletoe Market is returning, Junior League of Cobb-Marietta is excited for the return of the beloved holiday shopping event. We are thrilled to bring back the spirit of Mistletoe Market, raising funds to support many community service programs. You can’t go wrong by Shopping Small and For a Cause! Mistletoe Market will be bringing together 50 plus specialty merchants from across the Southeast. Join us as we get the holiday season started!
Mistletoe Market is Oklahoma City’s premier shopping event featuring unique merchandise from more than 100 carefully selected vendors from Oklahoma and across the country. Shop for clothing, gourmet foods, gifts, children’s items, jewelry and more – we promise you’ll find everything you need and more!
Mistletoe Market raises funds to support the mission of the Junior League of Oklahoma City. Proceeds from Mistletoe Market go to fund the Junior League of Oklahoma City’s health-based community projects in the Oklahoma City metro and helps the Junior League send trained volunteers into the community.
Thanks to the dollars raised at Mistletoe Market since 1994, JLOC has been able to distribute more than $1.5 million to Oklahoma City through funding of community projects!
The Mistletoe Market will run from 10am to 6pm on December 7, 2019. Reminiscent of the German Kristkindl Market, this festive Holiday Shopping Market brings old world charm & warmth to Grove City’s Historic Town Center
Breakfast with Santa. Come to these Festive Market Spaces for your unique, one of a kind, Holiday Gift Shopping
• In Town Center Businesses
• Inside City Hall’s Council Chambers & Lobby
Find Selected Retailers & Fine Crafters for Exclusive Holiday Gift Items & Winter Wares
The Junior League of Huntington’s Mistletoe Market is a one-day shopping event that kicks off the holiday shopping season. Proceeds from this event help us with our initiatives on promoting physical and mental wellness for women and children. Mistletoe Market 2019 will be held at the Ramada Limited located at 3094 16th Street Road in Huntington, WV on Friday, November 8th from 4:00 pm-10:00 pm. If you purchase a VIP ticket you are granted early access from 4:00 pm-6:00 pm along with a wine glass full of coupons.
Mistletoe Market celebrates its 21st anniversary on October 31 – November 3, 2019 at Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center. Highlights of the Market include $500 in shopping spree opportunities, Mistletoe Market Cafe, and daily door prizes. Over 80 Merchants from 15 states bring a variety of items including: gifts for the gardener in your family, jewelry including earrings, bracelets and necklaces, holiday decor, clothing, and antiques. In addition to our cafe there are gourmet food vendors with fantastic holiday treats and food trucks to keep your energy high as you shop til’ you drop.
Shop till you drop at the Midtown Mistletoe Market. This destination, high energy NYC style holiday inspired market features contemporary craft, makers, fine foods, lots of activities, DIY gift stations, live entertainment and artists selling their original and series works, located in the heart of Midtown Houston in Midtown Park. Look for the beautiful outdoor setting with custom made red and white tents and holiday décor. Sip, stop and play Santa is on his way.
These are just a few – have a google if you want to find out about all the others!
Here in the UK we seem to call similar events (though we don’t actually have many of them) Mistletoe Fairs – I’ll say more about those another time.
Mistletoe Information: for general mistletoe info visit the Mistletoe Pages website.
The main Festival Day, complete with Druid Ceremony is on Saturday 7th December.
For Mistletoe Diary this year I hope (do I say this every year?) to cover a wide range of issues – including some interesting ecological points, comparisons with other parasitic plants, and, amongst other cultural angles, re-visiting mistletoe in Art Nouveau designs. This phenomenon was a particular feature of continental European design and I hope discussing these will help (me at least), in a very modest way, assuage some of the current crazy UK v continental Europe tensions.
So here, to kick off, is one of the plates from Edmond Lachenal’s mistletoe dinner service, designed for subscribers to Les Annales Politiques et Littéraires in the late 1890s.
This is just a teaser pic for now, I’ll say more about Monsieur Lachenal as the season progresses…
Very busy with mistletoe stuff this season – I’ve got loads of things to blog about but am having a bit of difficulty finding the time…
I usually post a summary of the wholesale mistletoe prices at the Tenbury Wells Auctions – so here, for the record, are this year’s figures, taken from Nick Champion’s reports:
Tuesday 27th November 2018 Mistletoe 1st Quality to £3.00 per kg to average £1.75
Mistletoe 2nd Quality to £1.00 per kg to average £0.50
Tuesday 4th December 2018
Mistletoe 1st Quality to £6.00 per kg to average £3.50
Mistletoe 2nd Quality to £2.50 per kg to average £1.50
Tuesday 11th December 2018 Mistletoe 1st Quality to £4.00 per kg to average £2.50
Mistletoe 2nd Quality to £1.00 per kg to average £0.50
Compare these to 2017’s prices, which were much lower. 2018’s sales, to use Nick Champion’s words, “saw a terrific trade on best quality lots”
Tuesday 28th November 2017 Mistletoe 1st Quality to £2.50 per kg to average £1.25
Mistletoe 2nd Quality to £0.75p per kg to average £0.25p
Tuesday 5th December 2017 Mistletoe 1st Quality to £3.00 per kg to average £1.50
Mistletoe 2nd Quality to £1.00 per kg to average £0.50p
Tuesday 12th December 2017 Mistletoe 1st Quality to £1.50 per kg to average £0.75p
Mistletoe 2nd Quality to £0.50 per kg to average £0.25p
As usual do note these are wholesale prices for freshly cut mistletoe – the retail price will be much higher as the material needs to be sorted, a lot of it discarded (there’s a lot of waste in mistletoe!) and the best bits trimmed and prepared for sale. The retail price will largely reflect the time taken to do all that.
The first of this season’s mistletoe auctions is happening on Tuesday morning – and I’m guessing that a lot of stock has already arrived on site, with more coming tomorrow. This is ‘proper’ traditional mistletoe, gathered from the old apple orchards across Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. If you want to attend you’ll need to be at Burford House Garden Stores, Burford, Tenbury Wells, WR15 8HQ on Tuesday morning. And you’ll have another chance on the following two Tuesdays.
This traditional mistletoe is, of course, the mistletoe species native to northern Europe, and the only species we have in Britain. It is the origin of all those myths and legends about mistletoe and the true mistletoe of Christmas kissing.
But there are many other mistletoes around – and in places where they don’t have Viscum album, other mistletoe species are substituted at Christmas. It’s arguably cheating, as it is our species that the kissing tradition belongs too, but it’s fun – and why not consider all mistletoes as kissing plants?
The harvest of these other mistletoes is also underway – particularly, as usual, in Texas where the Phoradendron mistletoes take the place of Viscum album, growing on Mesquite trees instead on Apple. Texas has a long tradition of sending its mistletoe across the USA and every year there are stories about the harvest and how it’s looking.
With the centenary of the Armistice tomorrow it seems fitting to briefly re-visit the tradition of mistletoe as a symbol of peace – which is now often overlooked.
Tradition holds that the Romans considered mistletoe a plant of parley, and that opposing armies would negotiate peace treaties under a mistletoe growth. This may, or may not, be strictly true but I doubt mistletoe played an active role in the 1918 peace negotiations.
Other traditions also reference mistletoe as a plant of peace; some versions of the Norse Baldur legend, in which Baldur is slain with a mistletoe-tipped weapon, suggest that his mother Frigga (a goddess of love) decreed that mistletoe must never do such harm ever again – and she proclaimed that all who meet under it henceforth will embrace and be friends.
The Greek legend of Aeneas visiting the Underworld also reflects an element of mistletoe as a peace symbol, with Aeneas using mistletoe, aka The Golden Bough, to gain safe passage to and from Hades.
These aspects of mistletoe tradition are rarely mentioned today – most people simply remember it as a symbol of love, friendship and romance. These are, of course, merely a variation on the same theme. The peace symbolism was perhaps remembered in mainland Europe longer than in the UK, with a strong tradition of mistletoe as a plant of good luck – a Porte Bonheur – in France well into the 20th century and maybe still today. The French New Year greeting Au Gui L’An Neuf relates to the giving of mistletoe as a good luck gift for the New Year.
But, getting back to peace itself, could it be that mistletoe actively seen as a peace symbol – particularly in the awful reality of the Great War? This was, after all, fought on land where mistletoe was still valued for its luck and peace properties.
It’s difficult to be sure – but there is a fair amount of mistletoe imagery amongst pictures of the time, including several sets where soldiers wear mistletoe in their hats. I rather doubt they were expecting to kiss anyone so it seems more likely they wore it for luck.
There was also use of mistletoe imagery in postcards sent back from the front – some specifically themed as Peace or Luck – so perhaps those are real proof of the ongoing, at that time, belief in mistletoe as a peace/luck symbol. But the evidence is patchy, and those postcards could be coincidental use of mistletoe, as a Christmas symbol, simply being used in a postcard sent at Christmas.
It is tempting to make a link though – and there are other possible examples from WW2 that add a bit of weight to the concept. But these too could be coincidental. One of my favourites is a remark Winston Churchill made in December 1944, on his high-risk (but successful) visit to Athens to stabilise the situation there by negotiating with the various Greek factions. On Christmas Day 1944, after flying in secretly, he was billeted offshore aboard HMS Ajax whose captain warned him that despite his mission it might be necessary for the ship to enter into action at any time. Churchill responded by saying:
“Pray remember, Captain, that I come here as a cooing dove of peace, bearing a sprig of mistletoe in my beak – but far be it from me to stand in the way of military necessity”.
Was that reference to a mistletoe sprig (rather than an olive branch) merely because it was Christmas – or did Churchill understand that mistletoe was also a plant of peace?