Bless this Child….

Having recently read a few books set in the Victorian era, I happened across a custom that I had not heard of before – the ‘Churching’ of women after childbirth. Doing a quick search I discovered it had connections to Candlemas; being so close to February 2nd, it seemed an appropriate time to find out more….

‘Candlemas’ – ‘Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus’ and ‘Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary’…. The 2nd of February being the day the Virgin Mary attended the Temple after the birth of Jesus, to be purified; Luke (2:22) – a Jewish rite, washing the sin of childbirth away. There were some who thought a woman to be ‘unclean’ and ‘unholy’, as she had engaged in sexual activity; holiness being virginity and celibacy – she required purification to be accepted back into society….

“The Holy Family in the Temple” – Lawrence OP via / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL:

There is no evidence to say women were thought to be unclean after giving birth at the beginning of Christianity – that was a notion to arrive later on. Indeed, at first it appears to be quite to the contrary, the Churching ceremony began purely as a blessing of thanksgiving that the woman had survived the ordeal of childbirth – for until the beginning of the 20th Century giving birth was the single most common cause of death amongst women….

Because of high infant mortality it became practice to baptise babies as soon as possible after birth. Statistics from the 1700s alone show two-thirds of children in London died before they were 5 years old, many of these failing to reach their second birthday. Starvation and disease among the poor claimed many lives; affluent mothers did not feed their own babies, employing a wet-nurse instead – this in itself could easily pass on infection….

Very often, due to still being in recovery, the mother would miss the baptism of her newborn – during which would be a blessing for the new parents. So a second blessing for the mother began to establish; a simple ceremony…. The woman would come to the church entrance and kneel with a lighted candle – (an acknowledgement to the Feast of the Presentation; the candle would be blessed and then used in the home). The priest, wearing a stole, would then bless her with Holy water; she would then take the edge of his stole and he would lead her into the church and to the altar, where she would once again be blessed with Holy water…. She had been welcomed back into the church after her period of absence whilst she recovered….To me this sounds like a gentle, caring ceremony….

“Benedictio mulieris post partum” ~ (The blessing of a woman after giving birth)….

“Christening gown” – anyjazz65 via / CC BY-ND Original image URL:

The problems began to arise during the Middle Ages; some preachers began to link the mother’s absence from the church and the baptism, with her ‘impurity’. The link to being unclean comes from the Book of Leviticus (12:1-8), which pronounces women as being unclean for one week after giving birth to a son and two weeks for a daughter. The mother was then to wait for between 1-2 months before she could be purified…. (The 40 days of the Leviticus law for purification)….

It wasn’t until the 4th and 5th Centuries that women began to be separated from the rest of society at the time of childbirth…. Indeed Pope Gregory the Great condemned the separation – deeming it would appear like a punishment to women – but gradually the practice was to become the ‘norm’….

Nowadays we often give birth in hospital and come home the same day…. Up to the middle of the 20th Century we could expect to stay in hospital for up to 10 days…. Before 1900 it wasn’t unusual for a woman to be bedridden for up to 6 weeks after childbirth….

“Photo Shoot : Child Baptism” – Divine in the Daily via / CC BY-ND Original image URL:

During the time leading up to the 17th Century wealthy European women were cut off from the outside World at the time coming up to the birth and then for a considerable period after; kept away from husbands and older children – to be attended by midwives, ladies-in-waiting and female relatives…. This term was referred to as ‘lying-in’….or ‘confinement’ as it later became commonly known as…. The room would be specially prepared; it had to be sealed from all outside influences – heavy drapes at the windows – in some cases even to the extremes of blocking up keyholes! Most probably in an attempt to keep out evil spirits. A fire would be kept burning in the hearth – very often the room would have been stifling – and with the lack of fresh air – foul-smelling too….

It is debatable as to whether all Victorian women went into confinement before birth. For the lower classes this is an improbability as they would have had the need to continue working and looking after the family for as long as possible. Certainly though, for the richer classes, this may well have been the case…. In a time of prim and proper morals – but also rather a lot of vanity – baby bumps were not aesthetically pleasing. Pregnancy would have been concealed for as long as possible; in fact until 1860 there were no scientific tests available to determine pregnancy – women generally waited 5 months to make sure…. At a time when fashion dictated the wearing of tight corsets it was probably when this became an impossibility that the woman went into ‘hiding’. Special corsets for expectant mothers were designed, with expandable laces to accommodate the growing belly – but the wearing of corsets during pregnancy began to disappear in the 1840s….

“Victorian Maternity Dresses” – Jvstin via / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL:

As advertising the fact one was pregnant was not the ‘done thing’ certain terms to describe the condition came into vocabulary: ‘in the family way’, ‘with child’, ‘in a delicate condition’ or for those who wanted to put it more crudely ‘in the pudding club’ – terms that have somewhat stayed with us….

As for all the women before them, giving birth for a Victorian woman was a critical time; statistics show in 1876 the mother’s death rate was 1 in 200. Before the 1840s it was considerably higher than that; for before that time it wasn’t considered necessary for those in attendance at the birth to even wash their hands! Hygiene was simply not on the agenda…. It was Dr. Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor, who became known as ‘The Saviour of Mothers’ – after he ordered all his students to wash their hands in a solution of chlorinated water and lime before examining mothers…. The idea caught on and after that the infant mortality rate fell from 18% to 6%….

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis – Public Domain

Malnutrition meant poorer women were often anaemic and in poor health – which meant the expectant mother and unborn child were at risk from the onset. Lack of Vitamin D and calcium could lead to rickets in the woman – giving the possibility of a contracted pelvis – making birth even more difficult. If problems did arise, few options were available. Before the sterilisation of equipment almost all caesarean sections proved fatal for the mother and were only ever performed to try and save the child if there was no hope for her – (without any anaesthetic of course)….

Jason Lander via / CC BY Original image URL:

If the actual birth didn’t kill, then there was the risk of blood poisoning afterwards. Often a piece of the placenta would be left behind and gangrene would set in….

Obviously, there were no antibiotics available at the time; just as there was no pain relief until the mid 1800s. Chloroform or ether was the first anaesthetic to be used in a difficult birth, in January 1847 by Scottish physician James Simpson. It was he who attended Queen Victoria after she was persuaded to use anaesthetic for the birth of Prince Leopold in 1853 – so pleased was she that she made the physician a Baron.

James Young Simpson – Public Domain
Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their nine children – 26th May 1857…. Public Domain

After the Queen had used anaesthetic it became more accepted; up until that point the Church had disapproved of the use of pain relief, saying it was a sin to intervene, God had not wished the process to be painless. Some went as far to say it was a punishment for womankind, for Eve’s temptation of Adam….


Of course, even if mother and child survived the birth, infant mortality remained high. Families tended to be large (in 1800 the average family had 7 children); richer classes wanted a son and heir and would carry on producing until one arrived. Whereas, poorer families needed lots of children to work and help support the family. Most women would be giving birth every 18-24 months – each time putting her own and that of her child’s life at risk…. There was little option in the way of birth control and any that did exist was frowned upon by the Church….

“Two young girls” – National Science and Media Museum via / No known copyright restrictions. Original image URL:

There was no hard, fast rule as to how long a woman should be confined to bed after childbirth. Doctors often advised at least 9 days but anywhere between 5-15 days was considered normal. For some women it was a welcome rest (one thought is it was introduced to stop women being forced back to work straight away); for others confinement literally meant imprisonment….

For many of these women the ceremony of Churching was a time to rejoice – it marked the end of their confinement – they could once again get together with family and friends and celebrate their new-born child…. For some, especially those living in villages, social life revolved around the church – the choir, Sunday school, church outings and events….many knew little of life beyond the village…. Victorians were God-fearing and the parson would dominate the village – so it was very often his views that dictated those of his flock – therefore, although for many the ritual of Churching was a joyous occasion for others is was a matter of needing to be ‘purified’ before being accepted back into the church and society…. It was perhaps ‘pot-luck’ as to the view-point the parson concerned took on the matter – was it a blessing and giving of thanks to “the safe deliverance and preservation from the great dangers of childbirth” (from the Church of England Blessing) or indeed a cleansing of her sins…?


Towards the end of the Victorian era, due to advancement in science, people began to question the old religious beliefs; the likes of Charles Darwin were partly responsible for this. His ‘Origin of the Species’ – the theory mankind was not created by God but had evolved just like any other species, caused many attitudes to change – but obviously this did not happen over night….

There were still plenty who were of the opinion if a woman was unchurched after giving birth she was unclean…. They would be offended if they came across her in the street; if she were to enter another’s household she would be certain to bring bad luck – for some it was taken to the extreme that she was unable to prepare food even in her own home in case she should taint it….

By the early 1900s many women were beginning to feel aggrieved about being labelled ‘unclean’ – but ‘old school’ mothers and grandmothers could be very persuasive; so for many the rite continued…. It was eventually officially dropped by the Catholic Church in the mid 1960s but in some communities it still, to some degree, carried on right up to the 1980s…. Today Western Christianity no longer observes it (although it is still retained in Orthodox churches). Nowadays the mother is blessed as part of the child’s baptism ceremony….

“Christening Day” – National Library of Ireland on The Commons via / No known copyright restrictions. Original image URL:

I was quite surprised, on reading through the comments on a couple of on-line forums covering the subject – at just how much effect Churching has had on some women even now…. Women who had been Churched in the 50s/60s/70s often express how angry and bitter they feel at the demeaning treatment they received – some even said it turned them away from the religion they had grown up with…. That is such a shame – but just goes to show how interpretation can influence opinion…. One thing I am sure we’re all agreed on now – bringing a child into the World is a wondrous miracle; one that should be celebrated not repented for…. Whether we are religious or not – we should all give thanks that we live in the times that we do – childbirth will never be easy – there will always be risks – but it’s nothing compared to what womankind had to go through before us….

“Midwives” – kc7fys via / CC BY-SA Original image URL:

Over your own Personal Rainbow….

Out of all the natural meteorological phenomena of the World – thunderstorms, hail, snow, drought, St. Elmo’s fire – there are so many – but the rainbow has to be one of the most beautiful and cheering among them….


Every time you spot one you can be safe in the knowledge it is a gift especially for you…. Even if you are seeing it with a group of other people, you can be assured each of you are seeing your own unique rainbow – as they are in fact an optical illusion….

Sunlight is made up of many colours but we generally see it as ‘white light’. If the sun is behind you and there happens to be moisture in the air ahead of you, be it rain, fog or perhaps even a fountain or waterfall – and if the angle is right – you may be lucky enough to see one….


The sun has to be low in the sky – less than 42 degrees above the horizon; the lower the sun the bigger the arc – a full bow can only be seen when the sun is exactly on the horizon (either at sunrise or sunset)….

Max Pixel

Any other time only a partial arc is seen…. To be correct a rainbow actually forms a full circle; usually we are too low down to see this but you may be fortunate enough to observe it if you are high up a mountain or in an aircraft….

Wikimedia Commons

Water is denser than air; as a sunbeam descends to Earth the light passes to a water droplet in the air – as is does it decreases in speed and changes direction – this is called ‘refraction’…. The light then splits into the separate colours; each colour has its own different wavelength that slows down at a different rate to the others – the term for this being ‘dispersion’…. If the angles are right, some of the light entering the water drop will be ‘reflected’ from the inside edge of the drop and will exit – once again being refracted – passing back from water to air….to the eye of the observer and a rainbow can be witnessed….


To our eyes there are seven colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet….red having the longest wavelength and violet the shortest…. But what we don’t see with the naked eye is the whole host of colours in between – there are actually over a million of them…!

Courtesy Magic Foundry

Back as far as 350 BC Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, was applying his enquiring mind to the rainbow – but it was Isaac Newton, during the 17th Century, who proved – by using a prism – that white light is made up of a spectrum of colours. Originally he only identified five colours; he added orange and indigo later….

As children we are often taught rhymes or other ways to remember the colour sequence of a rainbow; such as – ‘Richard of York gave battle in vain’ – or the name of a fictional character ‘Roy G. Biv’….


As with any phenomenon or unexplained occurrence, before the time of understanding, many myths and legends surrounded the rainbow….some of which are still with us today….

In Norse mythology the rainbow was a bridge (Bifrost) and it connected Earth with the home of the gods…. Eventually it was destroyed by war….

Max Pixel

In Japan it was also seen as a bridge; one for departed ancestors to return to Earth…. Whereas, in Hindu mythology, Indra – god of thunder and war – used the rainbow as an archer’s bow to shoot arrows of lightning….

For the Aboriginal people, the ‘Rainbow Serpent’ created the World and all life upon it…. In Christianity God created the rainbow as a sign to Noah, that He would never flood the Earth again (Genesis 9:13)….


In Medieval Germany there was a belief that no rainbows would appear in the skies for forty years before the end of the World….so to spot one was always a good omen…. ‘So the rainbows appear, the World has no fear, until thereafter forty years’…. – anon….

To a Celtic Druid a curve symbolises the crescent moon – the divine feminine presence – representing fertility, provision, prosperity and magic…. ‘Kambonemos’ – the Celtic rainbow – means ‘curve of the sky’…. Arches, crescents, anything of a curved shape, is reminiscent of an expectant mother’s belly and the life within…. Celtic lore says to make love under a rainbow will ensure pregnancy will happen…. A rainbow is the promise of a new life to come….


There are those who believe to see a double rainbow means a chance to follow dreams is about to be delivered – an opportunity is going to come your way….


Then there is the myth that we are all familiar with; the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow….

Legend has it that when the Vikings invaded Ireland, they plundered gold from all across the land and buried it to keep it safe….and when they eventually left they forgot to take some of it with them…. Now, the Leprechauns, who knew that all gold rightly belonged to the fairy folk, had been watching as to where the Vikings had hidden the treasure and quickly dug up the forgotten gold and reburied it, away from prying human eyes – for as far as they were concerned, the Vikings were human, therefore, all humans were to be mistrusted…. So goes the tale – where the end of the rainbow falls so lies buried a Leprechaun’s pot of gold….

Max Pixel

There is another little story about a Leprechaun and his gold…. This little fella had been tricked by a human into revealing where his treasure was hidden – buried under a bush, surrounded by other identical bushes…. The man needed a shovel to dig up the gold – and so he tied a red ribbon around the bush and gave the Leprechaun strict instructions not to remove it – whilst he went off to find something to dig with…. On his return he discovered the wily Leprechaun had tied red ribbons to every bush in the vicinity….clever little chap….


My personal favourite story is the Native Indian tale of how the rainbow came to be….

All the colours of the World had an argument; each believed it was the most important and served the greatest purpose on Earth…. Green declared it was the sign of hope and life, being the colour of leaves and grass….food for all the animals…. Without Green there would be no life…. Blue scoffed; being the colour of the sky and the sea, surely it was the most needed…. In the sky clouds could be found, from which rain – drawn from the sea – falls, bringing life to the land…. Yellow laughed; the sun, moon and stars are all yellow – they make you happy and bring warmth to the World…. Orange interrupted that it was the colour of the fruits and vegetables that obtain the vital vitamins to sustain life…. Red’s blood finally boiled….as it – being the colour of blood. – was sure it had the most important role; the colour of love, passion and the warning of danger…. Purple was enraged – and claimed it was the colour of Royalty – it stood for authority and wisdom – it stood for power…. Then a little voice piped up….it came from Indigo…. “What about me? I represent thought – I am for prayer and spirituality….I am the colour of silence….” Unbeknown to the squabbling colours, Rain had been listening in…. Finally, unable to stand the bickering any longer, it sent a flash of lightning accompanied by a crash of thunder…. Above the din Rain shouted “You fools – do you not realise you are all as important as each other? Without each other you are nothing…. Now, all join hands and come with me”…. Which they did – and from then on, every time it rained, they were reminded of how much they meant to each other and joined hands across the sky to form a great bow of colour….giving a sign of peace, love and hope for the future…. A sign for us mortals; for when we look up and see a rainbow we should reflect and show appreciation to each other....

Max Pixel
Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
There's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true....

Someday I'll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Way above the chimney tops that's where you'll find me....

Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly
Birds fly over the rainbow why then on why can't I...?

                                                                                                            ~ Over The Rainbow ~ 

Rainbow over the fields Charles D P Miller via / CC BY Original image URL:

Epiphany Cake anyone …?

Every New Year’s Day the same question arises in this household…. “Is it too early to take down the Christmas decorations?”….

So, is it unlucky to remove them before the Twelfth Night? Certainly it’s bad luck to leave them up after…. Right? Then, there’s those who believe they should be gone before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve – for to leave them in place would mean dragging all the negativity of the old year through to the new….

Christmas decorations princess toadie via / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL:

When exactly should we be taking down the tinsel and dismantling the tree then….?

In all honesty, there is a little leeway to be had here…. It all depends on whether the Twelfth Night or Epiphany is observed as the official end to Christmas….

In 567 AD, Councils of the Roman Catholic Church declared that the whole period between Christmas Day and Epiphany should become part of the celebration – and so hence the twelve days of Christmas came to be….the last night being the Twelfth Night and the eve of Epiphany….

Epiphany : from the Greek ‘epiphania’, meaning the visit of a god to Earth – or in this case, the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God. A Christian Feast Day celebration – ‘The Feast of The Three Kings’ – falling on the 6th of January; a date that marks two important events in the life of Jesus Christ…. The first being that it was on this day the Magi (the Three Wise Men) visited the Baby Jesus; the second, it was also the date – some thirty years later – that Christ was baptised by St. John the Baptist….

Epiphany (holiday) Adoration of the Magi by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 17th Century via Wikipedia

Children were once told that taking the tree down too early meant the Three Wise Men wouldn’t be able to find their way to the stable….as they needed the star on the top of the tree to guide them….

The Star on top of the tree fonticulus via / CC BY-ND Original image URL:

Twelfth Night comes with its own set of customs and traditions; such as the singing of carols and ‘chalking the door’….

Chalking the door derives from the Israelites in the Old Testament – marking their doors with lamb’s blood to save themselves from illness and death – ‘The Passover’…. The modern belief being that the chalked marks on the door protect from evil spirits; sometimes the chalk used is blessed by a priest….

“20 + C + M + B + 18”

The numbers refer to the calendar year; C M B represents the names of the Magi – Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar – it is also an abbreviation of the blessing “Christus mansionem benedicat” – “may Christ bless this house”…. The ‘+‘ s depict Christ….

Bamberg : Sign of the Three Wise Men bill barber via / CC BY-NC Original image URL:

Another custom, going back to the beginnings of Christianity, is ‘House Blessing’…. A priest will visit the house and sprinkle holy water in every room, (sometimes also using incense and blessed salt) – whilst praying for the household occupants….

Throughout the Christian World Epiphany is celebrated in different ways. Here in the UK however, it very often tends to be over-looked; the majority of people having returned to work after the festive season. There are obviously some who attend special church services and perhaps even a few who enjoy a Twelfth Night cake…. In Victorian times it was far more recognised and we might have all partaken in an Epiphany Tart; essentially a jam tart – but rather a special one…. A pastry ‘star’ shape would be formed inside the outer crust of the open pie, making a total of thirteen sections – each would then be filled with a different type of jam….it was supposed to resemble a stained glass window. Considered a delicacy at the time, housewives would compete with each other to see who could create the best looking tart….

Jam erix! via / CC BY Original image URL:

Many parts of the World do still celebrate Epiphany; in some European countries, such as France and Spain, special cakes and pastries are baked for the occasion…. In Belgium children might dress up as The Three Kings and go from door to door, to sing songs and be rewarded with sweets or money; Polish children often do something similar…. Whereas, some Italian youngsters hang up stockings ready to be filled with gifts….

I particularly like the idea of a custom they have in Ireland…. ‘Nollaig na mBan’ -or, ‘Women’s Christmas’…. It’s essentially a day off for women, when the menfolk do all the cooking and housework – now there’s a thought…. Sadly, in England generally the day is just marked as being the time to get those decorations down….

In days gone by, when we were festooning our homes with fresh greenery, decorations didn’t usually go up until Christmas Eve…. Nowadays, with artificial trees and such, we tend to put the decorations up earlier….many Brits choosing the beginning of Advent to do so and some Americans put theirs up straight after Thanks Giving….

Christmas postcard – children and sled inlaterdays via / CC BY Original image URL:

Me, I’m one of those who leaves it until the last possible minute….and yes! – Our tree is down again first thing New Year’s Day…. It’s not because I’m ‘bah-humbug’ (my humbugs have usually all long-gone by then) but – in my defence – I’m considering the welfare of the tree….

We always have a real tree in this house; a potted one, with roots…. We are in the fortunate position that, because of the nature of John’s work, we have somewhere to plant them afterwards; (we now have a nice little grove of Christmas trees thriving down his yard)…. I’m sure once all the baubles, tinsel and lights have been removed and the tree gets back out into the fresh air it lets out an audible sigh of relief….

There once used to be a thought that tree spirits living within our Christmas trees needed to be released…. During the festive period they would happily live in the sanctuary offered by the greenery brought into our homes – the holly, ivy etc – as well as the actual tree…. But on the Twelfth Night these spirits had to be set free; to keep them captive would bring bad luck….the greenery would not return with the Spring – and the crops in the fields would fail….

Before Christmas trees were brought indoors, trees outside were often decorated – usually with strips of cloth…. It was thought that as all the leaves had been lost the spirits had abandoned the trees. To try to entice them back, it was deemed necessary to make the trees look beautiful again….and guess what…. Surprise! Surprise! Every year it worked – the spirits returned, bringing with them the leaves….

Therefore, evergreen trees and plants must have had special powers to ward off evil brought by the darkness of Winter…. To the Pagans evergreen represented the continuation of life…. Wreaths of holly and ivy and whole fir trees were brought indoors to honour the Norse god Jul and the Yuletide festival….

Christmas wreath via

However, there is another story as to why we bring a tree indoors every Christmas time….

St. Boniface of Credition was a missionary of the Catholic Church during the 8th Century…. He traveled across Northern Europe trying to convert Pagans to Christianity….

St Boniface Lawrence OP via / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL:

It was whilst in the village of Geismar in Germany that St. Boniface witnessed a human sacrifice…. The Pagan villagers had gathered at the foot of their sacred ‘Thunder Oak’ – dedicated to their god, Thor – in order to make their annual offering….the life of a young child….

Enraged and horrified, St. Boniface seized an axe and felled the mighty oak…. Behind it was growing a small fir-tree…. Pointing to it St. Boniface exclaimed….

“This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace…. It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are evergreen. See how it points upward to Heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child, gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rights of kindness”….

However astounded the Pagans may have been at what St. Boniface had done to their sacred tree, they obviously paid heed…. During the centuries to follow the tradition of bringing an evergreen tree indoors spread through Germany – and eventually the rest of the World….

Evergreen via

So, yes! I do believe in the spirit of the tree….and it is only an act of kindness to release it back to the environment it is at its happiest in, as soon as possible….

OK – there is another reason too – I must confess…. I am always a little glad to get some normality restored to the household – (perhaps there is one humbug left over after all)…. However, there are those who leave their decorations up until Candlemas….and some even believe that if the decorations are still up after the Twelfth Night they should remain so for the whole year…. Perish the thought..!!

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….

Any girls around? Siebuhr via / CC BY-NC Original image URL:

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.

Biodiversity Heritage Library

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….

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
Fruit cut open Stefan.lefnaer – own work – via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
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….

Mistle Thrush Nest 11.04.11 NottsExMiner via / CC BY-SA Original image URL:

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….

The Mistle Thrush (Explored) Mike Hazzledine ~~ British Biodiversity via / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL:

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’….

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 / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL:

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….

George Henry & Edward Atkinson Hornel – Druids, Bringing in the Mistletoe [1890] Gandalf’s Gallery via / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL:
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.


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….

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….

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….

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….

“Misty” the Mistle Thrush postman.pete Thanks for 2m Views via / CC BY Original image URL:

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

….Happy New Year X


Strew thy floor with herbs….

After a month of having a poorly rabbit living in the bathroom I have got used to constantly clearing up a trail of straw and hay that seems to find its way around the rest of the house…. In days gone by that would have been perfectly normal in this old place; in fact, the floors would have been totally covered with the stuff….

When we first took possession of this cottage, one of our first jobs was to take up the brick floors of the bathroom and what is now the dining room. The brick was prone to drawing up moisture and so constant damp floors were an issue.  That said, even that – in its time – must have been an improvement on what was there before….plain, simple compacted mud. Yes, we often joke about living in a place with mud floors, this old cottage had literally just that….

The kitchen has old Victorian flagstones (unfortunately they are un-aesthetically pleasing – so now provide a base for wooden laminate flooring) but this floor too would once have been plain mud….

Grander abodes may have had stone floors – but mud or stone, neither offered much in the way of home comfort when left bare…. So, to overcome this, the floors would have been covered with reeds, rushes or straw. This made a soft ‘carpet-like’ covering, providing a little warmth and helping with cleanliness by soaking up spillages (and worse)….as in days gone by it wasn’t unusual for the inhabitants to share their dwelling with their most valuable assets….their livestock. Of course, cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens are difficult to house train….

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Photo credit: Shy Goats via / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL:

As if the smell of ‘eau de goat’ constantly lingering in the air wasn’t bad enough – the people probably didn’t smell much better either, as folk did not tend to bath much in the Middle Ages….

Then there were the other uninvited household inhabitants to be considered; rats, mice and other scampering rodents….and with these creatures came fleas, lice and ticks; the straw covering the floors and providing the stuffing for mattresses….an absolute haven for them….

Some households may have replaced the straw or reeds on a fairly frequent basis but the majority would have only changed them a couple of times a year, some may have not bothered at all…. Quite possibly a new layer would just have been added as required, the bottom, rotting layers staying in place for years….

In a previous blog I talked about how nose gays were used by people to overcome unpleasant odours – that was not the only way powerful smelling herbs were used to mask rancid, disagreeable whiffs….

All areas of the home, kitchens, dining halls, sleeping areas would have had herbs strewn amongst the floor covering. They would have been put amongst the straw of bedding and scattered across tabletops….any where they could release their sweet aromas….

When scattered on the floor the herbs would be crushed underfoot when walked upon; some herbs were chosen for their scent, others because they acted as a deterrent to insects, such as fleas….

The best strewing herbs according to Thomas Tusser’s “Five Hundred Good Points of Husbandry” (1573) were:- Bassel (basil), Bawlme (lemon balm), Camamel (chamomile), Costemary (costmary), Cowsleps and Paggles (cowslips), Daisies of all sorts, Sweet Fennel, Germander, Hysop (hyssop), Lavender, Lavender Spike, Lavender Cotton (santolina), Marjoram, Mawdelin, Penny Ryall (pennyroyal), Roses of all kinds, Red Myntes, Sage, Tansy, Violets and Winter Savery….

Many other herbs may have been included; mint, thyme, rosemary, meadowsweet, wormwood, rue, sweet woodruff…. Pennyroyal was used particularly as a flea or tick repellent and meadowsweet was a fond favourite of Queen Elizabeth I…. Part of the purpose of the Mediaeval and Elizabethan garden was to grow herbs for strewing….

Of course, it wasn’t just private abodes that had mud or stone floors, just about all buildings did, including churches. Church pews did not arrive until the 1400s; in fact, our very own church, St. Mary and All Saints, here in Dunsfold, is reputed to have the very first pews in the Country. Before seating was available those attending Services had to stand, kneeling when required to pray…. Only the rich could afford cushions, so it is not hard to imagine the discomfort such floors caused to the knees….

Once again the floors would have been strewn with rushes and herbs….making things a little more comfortable and at the same time disguising nasty odours from the unwashed bodies of the congregation packing the church, or perhaps those of the deceased buried under the church floor…!

Each year, typically in the late summer, the old, rotten rushes were cleared out ready to be replaced. It didn’t take long for the process to become an annual Parish event…. It became an excuse for villages across the Land to celebrate and party when the church’s rushes were replaced; a celebration with revelry, feasting, drinking and Morris dancing….

The rushes were taken to the church in carts, in what was to evolve into Rush Bearing Processions. The rush-cart would be decorated with garlands of flowers (which were then used to decorate the inside of the church) and often silver plate items, borrowed from those in the community fortunate enough to own some….and then the cart would have been pulled along by a team of men….

The processions became competitive, with each village trying to ‘out-do’ the next…. Competition was intense, to who had the biggest and best cart…. Possibly due to the large quantities of ale consumed, sometimes brawls broke out between opposing teams…. It was not unusual for church ministers to refuse entry into their churches of rowdy rush-bearers….

Sweet flag, a strongly aromatic perennial plant, was introduced to Britain during the 1500s and became the centre-piece of rush-bearing ceremonies. A versatile material, with medicinal and culinary uses, it was also used on some English cottages as thatching….

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Photo credit: Sweet Flag milesizz via / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL:

Each church tended to allocate one day in the calendar for the ceremony. By the 16th Century, the bells were rung and ale, wine and cake were provided for the rush-bearers. Each church has a patron saint allocated to it at the time of consecration; an annual feast (wake) was held on the nearest Sunday to the official feast day of the allocated saint. By the 18th Century the rush-bearing ceremony usually formed part of the church’s feast day….

Rush strewing in churches died out in the early 1800s, as floors became flag-stoned…. Records show that one of the last was the church in Saddleworth, North Yorkshire, its floors were covered until 1826. Nowadays, certain areas, mainly confined to the North West areas of Cheshire and Lancashire, (although a small part of West Yorkshire participates too), have revived the tradition. Processions attract large crowds of spectators; the carts are highly decorated, with teams of men pulling them, whilst the ladies ride on top…. Who knows, perhaps it will become a celebration which spreads to the rest of the Country….let’s face it, nothing’s changed in that respect….any excuse to party….

The tradition of the little girl at a wedding, preceding the bride with a basket of petals and herbs comes from herb strewing…. Herbal weddings are becoming increasingly popular. Very often newly wed couples are showered with natural confetti, either fresh or dried. Many people like to make their own, maybe blending certain flowers and herbs to convey a personal message, they may incorporate: lavender – for luck and devotion, rose petals – for love, marjoram – for joy and happiness, chamomile – for patience and sage – to wish a long life….

To gather herbs for strewing in the home, they need to be picked in dry weather and it is best to hang them upside down in bunches to dry….

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Photo credit: Dried Herbs Caitlinator via / CC BY Original image URL:

To make a herb powder for use in the home:

1 cup borax : 1/2 cup salt : 1/2 cup powdered mint : 1/2 cup powdered rosemary : 1/2 cup powdered mug wort : 1/2 cup dried lavender

Herbs can be ground in a coffee grinder or spice mill (kept solely for the purpose) to make powder

Mix dry ingredients together – add 12 drops of essential oil of choice…. Sprinkle on rugs and carpets; leave overnight and vacuum in the morning….

Another easy tip: sprinkle lavender under rugs and doormats, to keep rooms smelling sweet – the scent is released when the lavender is crushed when the rug/mat is walked upon….

Happy strewing….

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Photo credit: A pile of dried lavender herb fotografeleen via / CC BY-SA Original image URL: