Mystical, Magical, Mistletoe: The Link between Santa Claus & the Green Man – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – December 2006
by Pamela E. Apkarian-Russell
Mistletoe is an ancient and much revered plant and can be seen on many a Christmas and New Year’s card because of its importance to the season. More revered than holly and ivy which are sung of in Christmas carols, mistletoe was harvested by the ancient Druid priests using a golden sickle and never allowed to touch the ground. It was known as a cure-all and today scientists are just beginning to discover the usages that the Druids already knew. This knowledge was considered too sacred to profane by committing it to parchment. With the fading away of this much persecuted group by the Romans and Christians, their knowledge was lost. The image of mistletoe and certain traditions of its usage have survived, especially in art; these are some of the images that have been incorporated into Christianity and the Christmas season since pre-Medieval times.
Mistletoe as a plant is a parasite which enjoys growing on oak and apple trees, both of which were major food sources for the ancients. The oak nuts, or acorns, were made into a beverage and drunk as we do coffee today. The meat of the acorn was also added to soups and breads. Honey was used to sweeten its bitterness if available. The berries of the mistletoe are poisonous, but used in small amounts and in the hands of a healer, performed miracles. We often see the Druids and the Green Man image, or mythological images showing mistletoe and acorns, as the oak tree was sacred to the Druids.
It is not known when the first images of the Green Man began appearing in Cathedrals and churches, or why this remnant of the old religions was allowed by a very unrelenting and stern church. The motif is prolifically found in most cathedrals, many churches and other religious sites. Columns and ornately decorated areas, especially in high places, nooks and crannies, are where one usually sees the images of the Green Man. That he is associated with the old religions and is a form of nature god is obvious. Why the church allowed, and in most cases encouraged, the incorporation of an image we no longer know the definition of is most mystifying and has had scholars arguing for centuries.
The holy plants of the ancient religions were incorporated into Christianity and hence today we utilize them extensively in the art of Christmas. Santa or Father Christmas can be seen with his hair, beard or body adorned with mistletoe and holly. Holly could be found in every churchyard and graveyard, as holly was considered holy and always planted in sacred places to keep them from being profaned. Mistletoe was said to cure melancholy and if there was an oak nearby, it could enhance the power of good for both the quick and the dead. Ivy growing on the buildings and Rowan trees (mountain ash) was also considered sacred and thought to ward off evil, and so was planted near the kirk (or church). Ivy, which is a climber also, concealed buildings from evil spirits who would then pass them by.
[quote style=”boxed”]O, BRAVE IS THE LAUREL! AND BRAVE IS THE HOLLY! BUT THE MISTLETOE BANISHETH MELANCHOLY. – Cornwall[/quote]
Mistletoe needs a host and the mighty oak was its favorite. Some of the early pre-obese Coca-Cola Santa images show a saintly image of him with mistletoe and holly, complete with red and white berries growing in his hair and beard. These plants were to protect the wearer and ward off evil. Besides being ornamentally beautiful and decorative, they were magical in their powers. Groups like the Puritans felt they were evil and, along with everything and anything Christmas related, forbid its usage. In Colonial days if you were caught with any of it in your home you were sent to the stocks, or worse. In Europe at the same time, people used these plants profusely to decorate their homes along with the Yule Log – which was also banned by the Puritans along with the celebration of Christmas.
Symbols are often misinterpreted or misrepresented by different groups to further their own point of view; it is not unusual to see a symbol meaning one thing in one place and something totally opposite in another. The black cat in America is thought unlucky, but in Europe it is considered good luck. From Victorian times on, it is shown as decoration and sent on cards to bring the recipient good luck. In America we vilify witches, but in Scandinavian countries they are celebrated at Easter. One hopes they will fly up to ones roof to bring good luck by brewing a pot of coffee and consuming it. A home that has a witch visit will not burn the food or have ill luck all year long. These Easter witches are the forbearers of the kitchen witch many of us have in our kitchen to save the carrots and potatoes from burning in the pots. The difference is how you see something and how flexible your tolerance glands are. There are those who are allergic to goldenrod and see the plant as an awful weed, while others pick it, dry it, use it for decoration and brew tea from it.
Santa, in the days of our Civil War, was seen as a saint. Later he is seen as a magical figure, as in the illustrations of Thomas Nast, then finally as the jolly rotund man of today. In the original illustrations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the ghost of Christmas present could have stepped out of the forests of merry olde England in this well loved Christmas story. John Leech, who illustrated the original version, portrays the ghost as a giant with a green robe open sufficiently to expose his chest and trimmed with ermine. His hair is a tangled mass of mistletoe and holly and his face is glowing with vitality and the bounty of the harvest, with good will toward all. This barefooted harbinger of happiness and joy, wielding his torch and horn of plenty, is much closer to the spirit of the Christmas season than his overweight, soda devouring counterpart. Leech shows us the ancient spirit of the Yule season decked as both the Green Man and as Father Christmas. He is the spirit of nature decked in green; the link between Santa Claus, the celebratory giving spirit of Christmas and the Green Man.
It is not unusual that mistletoe was used for the prank of stealing a kiss during the Yule season. One of the more incredible books done for children is Floral Fairies – The Mistletoes’ Pranks by Gertrude Ina Robinson, with drawings by F.A. Carter. This is one of a series of books done “humanizing and personifying plant life,” or giving them an anthropomorphic dimension. First published in 1908, it lacks much of the insipid sweetness of that era and mixes the stylization of many different art types of its day. A highly illustrated book like this with full color pages will sell for $350.
Mistletoe does not show up on hand painted china with the frequency of holly but it can be found, especially on Limoges blanks. These can sell for anywhere from $35 to $300 depending on the quality of the painter who decorated the piece and the size and shape of the item. A cloth banner which wishes one a happy Christmas holiday can sell for as high as $300. Mistletoe decorated items are out there, though not in great abundance, and can be found.
Perhaps the place one sees the most mistletoe décor is on greeting cards and postcards especially for the Yule season. Centuries ago many people began observing the “Christmas holidays” at the beginning of December until January 6. Some Christian groups, like the Armenian Apostolics, celebrate Christmas using the old Calendar and the original date for Christmas on January 6 not December 25, which most churches changed to coincide with the birth of Mithras. In time, the old deity was erased from the memory of most celebrants. Could this be what happened to one form of the Green Man?
One of the most desirable of images is a little boy dressed in holly kissing a little girl in mistletoe on a 1910 John Winsch postcard, valued at $30 (see this month’s cover). The charm of their chaste embrace, as they stand in the falling snow, is the innocence of nature they depict. Cross over images are always intriguing. A beautiful woman from ancient days or an angel may be uncertain, but the mistletoe in her hair is powerful, uniting the two religions at least in a cultural sense. Printed in Germany for B.E. Chapman of Little Falls, New York, this postcard, circa 1910, is worth $14.
Hold to Light postcards are some of the most desirable types of cards produced. The process of how they were printed, combined with the extra process of die cutting the pieces, made the original process more expensive when they were new. Because they were played with by people holding them into the light, they tended to get soiled and damaged. Santa Hold to Lights would sell for approximately $250 each.
Mistletoe is the link between summer and winter, as it remains alive and green even when all the leaves have been shed by the trees. Looking up into barren branches, the balls of mistletoe hang almost like a kissing ball or nest for the birds, in full sight of those who stand below. Archers and bowmen of all periods would pride themselves in being able to hit the mistletoe with a single shaft, bringing it down where it would be caught before it hit the ground on either a sheepskin or a cloth. Bringing it into the homes would bring love, prosperity and joy. Not just any archer was allowed to try for the mistletoe; only those who were chosen because of their accuracy and prowess. If the link between summer and winter is mistletoe, then perhaps it is also the link between the Green Man, the nature deity who makes things grow and Father Frost, saint of Christmas who has evolved into our Saint Nicholas. The melding of traditions and names has changed his image as well as function over the years. Thomas Nast’s image of a hundred years ago no more resembles the Elizabethan image of the Green Man any more than it does the red suited Santa we see today.
The Celtic Green Man in cathedrals can be depicted as grotesque, and often the images are referred to that way. They can also be so ribald that Sir John Falstaff might blush. They were the life force and were represented fairly raw, which might have been acceptable to a Rabelais but certainly not to Victorian and post Victorian society. Today, the beneficent being gives not life but gifts and above all, hope and goodwill. Which is, after all, why the Christ child was born and why his birth is celebrated each year. As Dickens’s Scrooge said, “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future! The spirits of all three shall strive in me. Heaven and Christmas Time be praised for this.”
Life and death are extreme opposites. The birth of a child and the evergreen mistletoe represent life, and the cold and snow of winter represent death. We celebrate the birth and the life force, and perhaps that is the reason the image of the Green Man was accepted and incorporated into the cathedrals – to remind us of the life cycle. The Green Man is the archetype of the oneness of earth and Father Christmas, the gift giver, is a form of the Green Man. While there are few images, other than garden ornaments and ornamental embellishments, of the Green Man, the images of mistletoe and of the gift giver are many and are an embellishment and reminder for our homes. The Green Man represents life and Santa the living and giving of life. Merry Christmas to all….And to all a good life!