Kissin’ and Viscin

The Mistletoe in Popular Pastimes ~ FW Stephanoff (1816)

Long  ago and far away — in 1950s Iowa, that is — grocery store produce sections marked the beginning of the holiday season by laying in a supply of cranberries, mixed nuts, and mistletoe. The mistletoe wasn’t for eating, but for hanging. Three or four stems, bearing scattered white berries and tied with red ribbon, were considered de rigueur for New Year celebrations; hanging in doorways or from overhead light fixtures, they ensured opportunities for traditional New Year’s kisses.

Mistletoe traditions can be traced to very early times, when mistletoe was part of winter solstice celebrations. Druids revered the oak; their reverence included the mistletoe which grew on oaks, and which was assumed to have healing properties.

In time, new traditions developed. An anonymously-written book published in 1816 — Popular Pastimes, being a Selection of Picturesque Representations of the Customs & Amusements of Great Britain in Ancient and Modern Timescontained hand-colored plates attributed to Francis Philip Stephanoff, and this delightful passage (note that the spelling of ‘mistletoe’ has changed over the centuries):

Mistletoe is still beheld with emotions of pleasurable interest, when hung up in our kitchens at Christmas; it gives licence to seize “the soft kiss” from the ruby lips of whatever female can be enticed or caught beneath. So custom authorizes, and it enjoins also, that one of the berries of the Misletoe be plucked off after every salute. Though coy in appearance, the “chariest maid” at this season of festivity is seldom loth to submit to the established usage; especially when the swain who tempts her is one whom she approves.

In time, the custom of decorating churches with greens took hold, and mistletoe was included. In his poem Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve, Robert Herrick (1591–1674) wrote about taking down the greenery, including mistletoe, to signal the end of the Christmas season.

Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletoe;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box, for show.

A different poem quoted in Popular Pastimes is undated, but hints that the custom existed in even earlier times.

The Misletoe hangs from an oaken beam,
he Ivy creeps up the outer wall;
The Bays our broken casements screen,
The Holly-bush graces the hall.
Then hey for our Christmas revelling,
For all its pastimes pleasures bring.
The Misletoe’s berries are fair and white,
The Ivy’s of gloomy sable hue;
Red as blood the Laurel’s affect our sight,
And the Holly’s the same with prickles too.
Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball ~ from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol

Before being hung in isolation, mistletoe may have been incorporated into kissing boughs: two intersecting circles of greenery which eventually became our ‘kissing balls.’

When hung in a doorway near the entrance to a house, visitors would embrace the home’s master and mistress under the kissing bough as a sign of goodwill. The inclusion of mistletoe in these kissing boughs may have given rise to the more modern tradition of kissing under mistletoe.

In John Leech’s illustration of Mr Fezziwig’s Christmas party in A Christmas Carol  there appears to be a kissing bough hanging from the ceiling, as well as mistletoe being held by hand over a girl’s head.

Kissing aside, mistletoe may have other uses which our ancestors hardly could have imagined. While reading about the sticky viscin threads that characterize flowers like the Pink Evening Primrose, I noticed a reference to another source of the substance: mistletoe.

American mistletoe ~ Phoradendron leucarpum

Each mistletoe berry can produce up to two metres of sticky viscin threads. The substance allows the seeds of this parasitic plant to stick to and infect its hosts, like the oak trees which the Druids revered. A recent paper from McGill University and the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces suggests that, once processed, viscin’s stiff but flexible fibres, which adhere to both skin and cartilage as well as to various synthetic materials, could have a range of applications.

That discovery also was serendipitous. Matthew Harrington, a senior author on the McGill paper, wrote:

I had never seen mistletoe before living in Germany. So, when my daughter was playing with a berry from a mistletoe we bought from a local Christmas market, and it started sticking to everything, I was intrigued.

Researchers eventually discovered that viscin fibres, which stick to themselves as well as to other materials, could be stretched into thin films, making them potentially useful as wound sealant or skin covering. The fact that the viscin’s stickiness is reversible under humid conditions makes it even more interesting, and more useful.

Given the properties of its viscin-laden berries, the mistletoe draping our Texas oaks eventually may become more than an unsightly or bothersome parasite; that could be worth both a hug and a kiss.

Comments always are welcome.

Meanwhile, On a Different Field


I’ve never been a baseball fan. To be honest, I’ve lived with only a rudimentary knowledge of the game through most of my life. But an occasional peek into the goings-on during the Houston Astros’ run toward the American League championship meant that I saw Yordan Alvarez’s walk off homer in game one of that series. Like much of Houston, I couldn’t stop watching the next game, and the next, and the next.

This morning, one of the most elderly residents of my complex was out walking her dog as usual, and we greeted one another as we usually do. But this time, when I said, “Good morning!” she replied, “How ’bout them Astros?” Today, even supporters of other teams are saying the same thing.

In the grand scheme of things, a World Series title may seem unimportant, but a happy city isn’t the worst thing in the world, and down at the local café the happiness was palpable. Everyone — Black, White, Hispanic, male and female, young and old — was talking about only one thing, and perhaps remembering what it felt like to live beyond divisions.


Comments always are welcome.

A Natural Tribute to the Fallen

Fannin Monument ~ Goliad, Texas

Thanks to Hollywood and assorted writers of historical fiction, “Remember the Alamo” has become one of America’s best-known battle cries. But before the Alamo, there was James W. Fannin, a few hundred fighters for Texas independence, and the infamous Goliad Massacre: a pivotal event leading to the establishment of the Republic of Texas.

Events leading to the massacre of over four hundred men and Colonel Fannin were complicated; a brief explanation can be found here. After the executions, the bodies were burned and their remains left exposed until June 3, 1836, when Gen. Thomas J. Rusk gathered them and provided burial in a common grave.

The grave remained unmarked until about 1858, when a Goliad merchant, George von Dohlen, placed a pile of rocks on what was believed to be the site. Decades later, some Goliad Boy Scouts found charred bone fragments nearby and, in 1930, University of Texas anthropologist J. E. Pearce began an investigation. With its authenticity as the Fannin burial site verified by historians Clarence R. Wharton and Harbert Davenport, money was allocated in Texas’s centennial year — 1936 — for the construction of the monument shown above.

The monument’s sculptor, French-born Raoul Josset, moved to the United States in 1933. Many of his works in this country are dedicated to individuals who helped to shape the State of Texas: a bronze and granite tribute to Captain Amon King, hero of the Battle of Refugio; an eight-foot bronze of George Childress, author of the Texas Declaration of Independence; and a bronze angel guarding the crypt at Monument Hill, where remains of Texans killed in the Mier-Sommerville expedition are interred.

When I visited the Fannin Monument this spring, all was peaceful. The years-old explanatory sign, rusting but undamaged, still brought a smile. Nature herself is being allowed to decorate the gravesite, year after year.

Blooming among this year’s crop of bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, and Engelmann’s daisies was an uncountable number of huisache daisies (Amblyolepsis setigera). A Texas endemic found primarily in the central part of the state, I’d last seen them during the Great Wildflower Explosion of 2019.

One of the flower’s most appealing characteristics is the range of colors it displays as it begins to fade. Clear yellow blooms become tinged with orange, and green ‘nerves’ in the ray flowers (akin to those seen in the four-nerve daisy, or Tetraneuris linearifolia) become more obvious.

Eventually, the colors darken even more, occasionally turning a deep, reddish-orange.

Even as they age, the flowers’ beauty endures: not unlike a grateful state’s memories of the men who lie beneath them.

Comments always are welcome.

A Taste of Tradition From Turkey, Texas

Through uncounted years, I spent the Thanksgiving holiday in the Texas hill country. Sometimes I served dinner at a little cabin in the woods; from time to time, I joined friends up on the ridge, or out at Cypress or Upper Turtle Creeks.

The menu was simple as the day itself. Conversation supplanted football, and late afternoon walks in the woods were common. Evenings meant music: homemade, often inelegant, but resonant with the sound of Texas traditions. There were guitars, and sometimes a fiddle or mandolin. Invariably, the music led to dancing and singing, and more than a few back porches became dancehalls for the night.

It was our tradition.

In a book titled Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton once wrote:

Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.
All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.

Today, Bob Wills and his Playboys are gone, as are many of the hill country musicians I knew and loved. But the music lives on, and in hidden corners of Texas, that music will be playing today. It’s possible that a two-step might break out in the yard, or that someone still sitting on the steps might begin singing along. 

After all, it’s our tradition.


Comments always are welcome.

A Celtic Michaelmas

Michaelmas daisies (Symphyotrichum spp.) at the Watson Rare Plant Preserve

A variety of purple and gold asters long have been associated with today’s Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, or Michaelmas.  The Aster amellus, or Italian starwort, is the flower originally dedicated to Archangel Michael, but a variety of fall asters now carry the saint’s name.

One of four ‘Quarter Days’ tied to solstice or equinox — Lady Day (March 25), Midsummer (June 24), Michaelmas (September 29), and Christmas (December 25) — the feast evolved as a complex mixture of sacred and secular practices. I wrote last year about English traditions surrounding the feast, but Celts, too, had their ways of marking the end of summer’s productivity  and the beginning of a new agricultural cycle.

The baking of ‘struan Micheil,’ a cake made with oats, rye, and barley grown during the previous year, was particularly important. Alexander Carmichael, in his book Celtic Invocations, notes several details of the complicated process. Struans were baked by the eldest daughter of the family, guided by her mother. A large struan was set aside for the family; smaller ones were given to individual family members, neighbors, or the poor.

On the morning of the feast, baskets of struans were taken to the church to be blessed. Later, at home after Mass, families would share the large struan, along with portions of lamb. As Carmichael describes it:

[The Father] places the board with the bread and the flesh on the centre of the table. Then the family, standing around and holding a bit of struan in the left hand and a piece of lamb in the right, raise the triumphal song of Michael… who guards and guides them.
The man and his wife then put struan into one beehive basket, and lamb into another, and go out to distribute them among the poor who have neither fruits nor flocks of their own.

Comments always are welcome.