Save the last berry for me….

Mistletoe….that little bunch of greenery with its white waxy berries….that you may have suspended over your door during this festive season – in anticipation of a quick peck or perhaps a full-blown ‘snog’ – with whoever happens to cross the threshold…. One of our more fun traditions over the Christmas and New Year period….

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Any girls around? Siebuhr via Foter.com / CC BY-NC Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/msiebuhr/3129922971/

As much as we love it, as a plant it could be argued that mistletoe is a bit of a rogue – being a parasite it steals the nutrients it needs from its host – (it has leaves purely to photosynthesize)…. In small amounts it causes no real harm but a large infestation can kill the tree or shrub supporting it – and so ultimately it could also kill itself….

European mistletoe, ‘Viscum album’, is the only type to be found growing naturally in the UK. It can be recognised by its smooth-edged, oval-shaped, evergreen leaves, which grow in pairs on a woody stem with a cluster of 2-6 berries.

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Biodiversity Heritage Library biodiversitylibrary.org/page/4321409

Whereas, its cousin, ‘Viscum cruciatum’, found in South-West Spain, Southern Portugal, North Africa, Asia and Australia, has broader, shorter leaves and larger clusters of 10 or more berries….

European mistletoe utilises a wide variety of host plants; it can often be spotted growing in the upper boughs of, for example, our willow, apple and oak trees….

To begin with a seed germinates upon the branch of a tree, at first it is completely independent…. Usually 2-4 embryos are present, each producing its own Hypocotyledonous, (the lead stem of a germinating seedling); this will then begin to penetrate the bark of the branch and will start to root. Eventually it will tap into the host’s conductive tissue and the young mistletoe plant will form its Haustorium, (the name given to the part of a parasitic plant that enables it to attach itself and draw nutrients from its host). This whole process can take up to a year….

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Mistletoe after germination, fixed to substrate : epiphyte stade Auteur : Denis MICHEL Lieu et date de realisation : France – Lozere; Mai 2006 CC BY-SA 2.5
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Fruit cut open Stefan.lefnaer – own work – via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
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Seeds Stefan.lefnaer – own work – via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Come across a clump of mistletoe and you might be lucky enough to spy a Mistle Thrush, ‘Tardus viscivorus’, or ‘devourer of mistletoe’…. With its pale grey-brown, black-spotted underparts, this large (slightly bigger than a blackbird) thrush adores the berries produced by mistletoe and will guard a horde ferociously….(it also loves holly and yew berries and will defend these too). It returns the favour of a free feast by spreading the plant’s seeds (through its poo) as it travels from tree to tree – hence earning its given name ‘Mistle Thrush’….

Another name it (or at least the male) is sometimes known by is the ‘Storm cock’. Even in bad weather he sings his loud flutey song from the tree tops from late January onwards; to hear him is a sign that Spring is approaching. One of the earliest breeders of the year, the Mistle Thrush may lay eggs as early as the end of February and before the end of June could raise up to three broods….

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Mistle Thrush Nest 11.04.11 NottsExMiner via Foter.com / CC BY-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nottsexminer/561050577/

As well as the previously mentioned berries the Mistle Thrush will eat blackberries, elderberries, cherries, hawthorn and rosehips. It is known to take fallen fruit, such as apples and plums and will eat worms, slugs, snails and insects….

Although once commonly widespread across the UK – being found in woodland, parks and gardens – since the 1970s this bird has been declining in numbers and is now on the official ‘red list’. Between 1995 and 2010 one third of the population was lost; it is thought due to its young not surviving through to adulthood. Although we still have a lot to learn as to why the exact reasons for its decline, removal of hedgerows and the use of pesticides will not have helped. One thing we do know for sure is that we must be extremely concerned for its future….

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The Mistle Thrush (Explored) Mike Hazzledine ~~ British Biodiversity via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/64130468@N02/7148896/

Myths surrounding mistletoe, along with the customs and traditions involving it, far pre-date the advent of Christianity. The tradition of hanging it indoors and the belief that it brings good luck, whilst warding off evil spirits, stems from Pagan origins; in Norse mythology it is a sign of love and friendship….

Baldur the Beautiful was the son of Frigg (the goddess Friday is named after) and Odin. Baldur had reoccurring dreams of his own death; to pacify him his mother made every living thing on Earth – each animal and every plant growing in the soil – promise never to cause him any harm. Baldur became invincible – nothing could hurt him – but he remained very good-natured with it…. So much so, the other gods began to good-naturedly take advantage – and used him as ‘target practice’. However, there was one god – ‘Loki’ – who was not a particularly pleasant character….he was jealous and vindictive…. Loki discovered that mistletoe had been over-looked when it came to promising not to harm Baldur, as its roots were not placed in the soil…. He persuaded Baldur’s blind brother, ‘Hod’, to fire an arrow made from mistletoe at the young god. Baldur died instantly from the single shot; Hod was blamed and all of the gods mourned. Such was her grief, that Frigg’s tears formed the berries bourne by mistletoe – but rather than punish the plant she declared it to become the symbol of peace and friendship for evermore….

In days long gone by, if enemies met beneath it, a truce would be declared and arms laid down until the following sunrise…. In France, mistletoe is given at New Year as a gift to bring good luck – a tradition coming from the ‘Peace of Baldur’….

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A soldier of the Machine Gun Corps in a sheepskin coat kissing a French farm-girl under a sprig of mistletoe, near Hesdin, 20 December 1917. Jared Enos via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenoscolor/16023174195/

During the Roman occupation, Britons worshipped ‘Daron’ – a goddess of the oak tree. In Britain’s folklore there are 3 magical trees: ash, thorn and oak…. Oak is the king of trees; to cut down a sacred oak would be sacrament…. In the Celtic language ‘mistletoe’ means ‘all heal’; to the Druids it is one of the most sacred plants – healing diseases, rendering poisons as harmless, giving fertility (to both humans and animals), protecting against witchcraft, banishing evil spirits and bringing good luck….

Five days after the new moon following the Winter Solstice, mistletoe would be cut from the boughs of the sacred oak, using a golden sickle. Although it was allowed to naturally fall, it had to be caught in a cloak or out-stretched hide before it hit the ground – for if it did so, its magical powers would be lost. The ancient Druid priests would then separate the mistletoe into sprigs and divide them among the people, to protect them from evil…. In order for the magic to work, the bunch of mistletoe hung inside the house had to remain for the whole 12 months until a replacement was brought in – the old bunch would then have been burned with much ceremony….

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George Henry & Edward Atkinson Hornel – Druids, Bringing in the Mistletoe [1890] Gandalf’s Gallery via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gandalfsgallery/ gandalfsgallery-blogspot.com/2011/09/george-henry-edward
Sometimes it would have been used as a medicine to aid fertility. Being evergreen and whilst its deciduous host appeared to be dead during the sleeping months of Winter, mistletoe gave the impression of the life cycle continuing – especially important in regards to the sacred oak…. The paired leaves of mistletoe, along with its succulent berries full of sticky juice made it a symbol of the sexual organs…. Young women were given sprigs as a charm to help them find a husband.

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Foter.com

From the remains of this fertility ritual comes the custom of kissing beneath it – a custom that originates in England and dates back to the Middle Ages. A ‘kissing bough’ would be brought into the house; five wooden hoops formed into a ball shape and placed inside it a red apple suspended on a (usually red) ribbon. A candle would also be either placed inside or attached to the exterior; the whole of the outside would then be decorated with evergreen, such as holly, ivy, fir, rosemary, bay….and finally a large bunch of mistletoe hung from underneath….

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Wikimedia Commons Under the Mistletoe Public domain

As mistletoe was closely associated with Pagan rituals it was frowned upon by the Church and banned from the decorations used at Christmas time to decorate churches. This is still often the case today….

During Victorian times there became a renewed interest in certain Pagan customs – particularly those involving fun and frivolity….like kissing; the hope being things would lead to romance and marriage among the young folk…. Originally a berry would be picked from the sprig before the kiss – when all the berries had gone there would be no more kissing! Although originating in England, these ‘games’ soon became popular in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand….in fact just about in any English-speaking nation….

“Young men have the privilege of kissing girls under (mistletoe), plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases….”  – Washington Irving – early 19th Century writer – regarded as ‘The Father of American literature’….

Such became the demand for mistletoe during the mid 19th Century, that an organised harvest and the trading of it began. The key areas being Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Wales and lowland Gwent. (Herefordshire still boasts the best mistletoe in the UK and has the plant as its County flower)…. Being known as a fruit-growing region, the area’s orchards provided a perfect habitat and mistletoe was abundant; it would be cut and sent all around the Country….

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Mistletoe, growing in an apple tree. Chilepine – public domain Wikicommons

Soon the focus became centred on the ancient market town of Tenbury Wells, in the extreme northwest of the Malvern Hills district of Worcestershire. Tenbury was to become the English capital of mistletoe and for over 100 years its cattle market would be totally given over to an annual auction of mistletoe, holly and later, Christmas trees. Auctions, being held the last Tuesday in November and the first two in December, were open to retailers, florists, market stall holders and the public, from all over the UK. These auctions were held at Tenbury until 2006, ceasing after the cattle market was sold  in 2005 for redevelopment; it was then that the Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Festival was formed to keep the tradition alive. This year the auctions were held at Burford House Garden Store, in Worcestershire; it was a bumper crop and depending on quality fetched a price of between £1 – £2 per kg….

During Victorian times England’s growers found it too hard to keep up with the demand for mistletoe and so imports began to arrive from Europe – particularly France; where it would be harvested from the orchards of Normandy and Breton. It would be imported into the docks at Southampton and then taken to be sold at Nine Elms Market in London….

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Mistletoe in France.jpg – Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, with farming methods changing, many of our traditional orchards have disappeared – not just here in the UK but in Northern France too…. Perhaps this should emphasise even more just how important it is that we look after our little friend the Mistle Thrush – especially if we want to carry on the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe….

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“Misty” the Mistle Thrush postman.pete Thanks for 2m Views via Foter.com / CC BY Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/postmanpetecoluk/

Remember to save that last berry for the one you love….

….Happy New Year X

 

Scottish Oatcakes….

With Hogmanay coming up, what better way to enjoy a little taste of Scottish fayre than with traditional oatcakes and a large chunk of your favourite cheese….?

Bake these golden oaty biscuits in just a few minutes….

Once traditionally eaten with every meal in Scotland, they make a great alternative to bread….

 

Ingredients

  • 250 g / 8 oz oat meal
  • 25 g / 1 oz melted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • pinch of salt
  • 150 ml hot water (from a recently boiled kettle)

 

Method

Pre heat your oven to 180 degrees C

Place oat meal in a large mixing bowl along with the bicarbonate of soda and pinch of salt

Gradually add the melted butter and hot water, mixing with a wooden spoon, to form a paste

Dust your hands with a little flour and form the paste into a soft dough

Sprinkle your work surface with oats and a little extra flour

Roll out the dough to approximately 1/2 cm thick and use a cookie cutter to cut the rounds. The amount of oatcakes obtained will depend on the size of the cutter

Place on a baking sheet – a good tip is to line with baking parchment

Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until a light golden brown

Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly before transferring to a wire rack to finish cooling completely

Enjoy !

 

Will keep in an air tight container for a few days

New year, new beginnings, old traditions….

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As the New Year approaches, I find myself wondering about some of the traditional customs we associate with it, here in the British Isles and how they vary from region to region….

New Year is one of our oldest holidays, although the exact date of the festivities has changed over the times. Its origins can be traced back thousands of years to Ancient Babylon, when, starting on the first day of Spring, (which was determined by the cycle of the Sun and Moon), an eleven day long festival was held. These early, mostly Pagan, celebrations were in honour of the Earth’s cycles….

January the 1st became the common day for celebrating New Year with the introduction of the Julian Calendar, implemented by Julius Ceasar….

The Julian Calendar has its flaws, namely that it does not accurately record the actual time it takes for the Earth to circle once around the Sun (tropical year). It is because of this, that in 1582 the Gregorian Calendar was first introduced. Also known as the Western or Christian Calendar, it is the most commonly used one in the World today. It is named after its founder, Pope Gregory XIII but it was not adopted by the whole World immediately. In fact, it took over 300 years for it to become used to the extent it is today. France, Italy and Spain were amongst the first to employ it, the United Kingdom, United States and Canada did not start using it until 1752. Turkey was the last and it wasn’t until 1927 that they followed suit….

After the fall of the Roman Empire the date for New Year changed in Britain to March the 25th. It wasn’t until the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar that January 1st became the official day once again. It took until 1974 for it to become a public bank holiday….

There have always been superstitions associated with New Year, evolving in their own particular ways, from one part of the country to another. Most of them relate to luck and new beginnings….

Making New Year’s resolutions goes back to ancient times. Other customs and beliefs have come to us along the way…. Some are more general, such as opening the door at midnight to let the old year out and the new one in….

‘First Footing’ is also a widely observed custom but one that has its variations depending on its whereabouts in the country. Most commonly though, it is believed that the first person to cross the threshold after midnight, should have dark hair, to bring good luck. Ideally, they should bring coal, to symbolise warmth for the coming year, bread to represent food and salt for money – (hence the saying “worth his salt”). Many believe that if a blonde person were to be the first, ill luck would be forth coming. Many Scottish people believe the First Footer should be a stranger. In Wales, where it is known as ‘Nos Galan’, it is considered that if the first visitor is a woman and the door is opened by a man, this will bring bad luck. The Welsh also believe that bad luck will also be brought if the First Footer is a red head. Another belief is that all debt must be paid by the end of the year. To start a new year owing, would mean a whole year will be spent in debt….

Another popular superstition was – ‘the cream of the well’. It was believed that if a woman washed in the first water drawn from the well on New Year’s Day, she would become beautiful….

Some traditions are very regional. In Yorkshire, just before midnight, people say “black rabbits, black rabbits, black rabbits”. Then immediately after the clock has struck, “white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits”. By saying these words, good luck is ensured for the coming year. This is where the saying “white rabbit” comes from, said by so many of us on the first day of every month….

Herefordshire once had an old tradition of ‘burning a bush’. A young farmer, rising before day break, would cut down a hawthorn bush and set fire to it, to guarantee a good harvest later in the coming year….

Fire seems to feature in many of our New Year’s customs and beliefs. Northumberland for instance, has the Allendale Tar Barrel Festival. On the 31st of December, whisky barrels are filled with kindling, sawdust and burning tar, they are then paraded through the streets, on the heads of barrel carriers, called ‘Guisers’….

In Perthshire, the town of Comrie has its Flambeaux Procession. Eight, flaming torches are carried through the town and then are flung from a bridge into the River Earn, this is meant to cast out any evil spirits….

Stonehaven, near Aberdeen, has a Fireball and Chain Festival. Sixty, kilt clad marchers, swing about their heads, sixteen pound balls of fire attached to wire ropes, whilst parading through the streets accompanied by pipes and drums….

The Welsh people have their own gift giving tradition of ‘Calennig’. Some think this custom goes back to Pagan times. The name ‘Calennig’ is thought to come from the Latin ‘calends’ or ‘kalends’ – meaning first day of the month, which is also where we get the word ‘calendar’ from. A Calennig is a small decoration made from an apple, (or perhaps, nowadays, an orange), which has been studded with cloves and supported on three twigs. A sprig of box foliage is then inserted into the top of the fruit. It is meant as a token to ensure a future good harvest and is either displayed in the house or given as a traditional New Year’s gift….

Welsh children often get up early on New Year’s Day, (Dydd Calan), in order to go and sing songs to their neighbours, perhaps taking calennig decorations as gifts. In return, they receive sweets and money….

Another Welsh tradition, especially in South Wales, first recorded in 1800 and known as ‘Mari Lwyd’ (Venerable Mary), was not always so welcome! The skull of a horse, decorated with colourful streamers, would be carried on a pole and made so that the jaws could be snapped open and shut. The bearer would be covered in a white sheet, draped from the skull. Then, accompanied by a group of men, the ‘horse’ would go from house to house. The home owners would be challenged to a contest in song and rhyme, each taking a turn to banter in a more and more humorous and witty way as the contest progressed. The idea was for the group to be invited into the house to partake in ‘merriment’, in the form of food and drink. Obviously, having a group of boisterous, probably drunk, rabble of men, turn up on the doorstep, late at night, wielding a horse’s skull and expecting fun and banter….did not appeal to all! So, this custom began to decline at the beginning of the 20th Century. It was also discouraged by some of the Christian clergy, who frowned upon its Pagan origins….

Then, of course, we come to Scotland’s Hogmanay – the Scots word for the last day of the year. The exact origins of the name are unknown, the earliest references come from the 1600’s, with many spellings, such as ‘hagmane’, ‘hog ma nae’ and ‘hagmonay’….

Christmas, as we know it, was not celebrated as a festival in Scotland. In fact, from the end of the 17th Century, right up to the 1950’s, it was more or less banned…. Most Scottish people had to work over the Christmas period and instead celebrated the Winter Solstice holiday of New Year. The reason being, the Kirk (Church) viewed Christmas as a Catholic feast and as the Scottish Church had its roots in the Protestant Reformation, the festivities had to be banned….

‘Hand Selling’ was once the Scottish custom of giving gifts, it would happen on the first Monday of the year but this has now died out. Instead, New Year became the time for Scots to gather, exchange gifts, feast and hold celebrations. An important part of the festivities was (and indeed still is today), to welcome both friends and strangers into the home, to enjoy warmth and hospitality….

Hundreds of years ago, Pagan festivities would include lighting bonfires and rolling tar barrels, that had been set ablaze, down hillsides. These traditions are reflected in the magnificent firework displays and torch light processions, held every year, in Edinburgh and many other Scottish cities. Even more Pagan was the act of wrapping animal hide around a stick and setting it alight. The smoke was believed to ward off evil spirits, the smoking stick was known as a ‘Hogmanay’. Other customs would involve people dressing up in cowhides and running around the village whilst being beaten with sticks! Some of the more rural, remote communities, especially the Highlands and Islands, still continue a form of these old traditions today. For example, in the Outer Hebrides, on the Isle of Lewis, young boys divide into groups, the leader dresses in a sheepskin and they move from house to house, with a sack in which they collect a type of fruit bun, called a bannock….

In other parts of Scotland, it is traditional to give children a Hogmanay Oatcake on New Year’s Eve – this represents the time when they would of gone from door to door asking for oatcakes and bread….

“Get up, goodwife, and shake your feathers,
And dinna think that we are beggars;
For we are bairns come out to play,
Get up and gie’s our Hogmanay!”

One of the oldest traditions (and one shared by many cultures), is the cleaning of the house until it is spotless, on New Year’s Eve, making sure every task is finished. Symbols for what is desired for the coming year may be left out, such as food, so there will be plenty to come, coins for wealth and dolls, for the hope of being surrounded by family. Many Scots fast, or perhaps just have a very small breakfast, on New Year’s Eve. Then, once the magical hour of midnight arrives, all the windows and doors of the house are flung open to welcome in the New Year and to let out the old. Then a huge feast is partaken of….but not of course until the traditional “Auld Lang Syne” has been sung….

Nowadays, Auld Lang Syne has been adopted as the official New Year’s song, by just about every English speaking nation of the World….

It was in 1788, that Robert Burns first recorded the lyrics on paper and sent them to the Scots Musical Museum. He had based his famous poem on an earlier song, printed by James Watson in 1711. There is doubt as to whether the tune we all know and sing the words to, is actually the melody Burns intended….

Roughly translated, “Auld Lang Syne” means “for old times sake”. It is about looking back over the previous year and preserving friendships….

 

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot
And auld lang syne


For auld lang syne, my jo
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne….

On that note….it just remains for me to wish you, in whatever way you choose to celebrate it – A very happy and prosperous New Year!

 

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