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Mistletoe Bough

[Ken Nicol]

Ken Nicol and Steeleye Span sang their Mistletoe Bough in 2004 on their CD Winter. Ken Nicol commented in the album’s sleeve notes:

From the earliest times mistletoe has been seen as one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore. It was considered a bestower of life and fertility; a protectant against poison; and even an aphrodisiac. The mistletoe of the sacred oak was especially sacred to the Celtic Druids. Using it to treat all manner of diseases and as an antidote to every kind of poison, they called it “all heal”. Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses would kiss and make-up.

The feast of fools, or otherwise known as “The feast of the ass”, was an old French tradition marking the end of the Christmas festivities. Ludicrous songs were sung in churches, with choir singers sometimes dancing and dressing in grotesque attire. Old leather was burned as mock incense; and in some places an ass was led into the church, in whose honour a ridiculous Latin hymn was sung, with “hee-haw” for a refrain. These lines sung at the end of the song (From the regions of the east…) have been taken from a translation of one of these mock hymns.

There is also a quite different traditional song The Mistletoe Bough (Roud 2336).


Steeleye Span sing Mistletoe Bough

The mistletoe bough, in the olden time,
Was honoured in many a sacred rhyme
By bards and by singers of high degree,
When cut from its place on the old oak tree
By white-robed Druid with golden knife
For they thought it a magical Tree of Life:
And many a promise and holy vow
There was solemnly sworn on the mistletoe bough.

The mistletoe bough in the Norseman’s lay
Told ever of horrors, and love’s dismay
When the old blind god, by a sportive blow,
Laid Balder, the beautiful sun god, low;
Thenceforth it was deemed an accursed thing;
But love out of sorrow could victory bring,
And the tears of Freja are shining now,
Like oriental pearls, on the mistletoe bough.

The mistletoe bough on the festive throng
Looks down amid echoes of mirthful song,
Where hearts they make music as old friends meet,
Whose pulse keeps time to the dancer’s feet,
And eyes they are brighter with looks of love
Than gems outshining the lamps up above:
And who is she that will not allow
A kiss that’s claimed under the mistletoe bough?

From the regions of the east
There came a strong and handsome beast.
Slow indeed his paces are,
None with donkey can compare.
For the load that he will bear,
Hail, Sir Donkey, hail.