Mistletoe and a Flying Donkey

Couple under mistletoe

Mistletoe in French is called gui (rhymes with the first part of geese). This ball of vegetation that grows high in the trees has been considered magical since ancient days – because a mysterious plant that grows without soil must be magic.

A Very Beneficial Plant

The ancient druids revered this plant and believed it had many powers. Here are just some of the things mistletoe might be able to do: Cure illness, assure fertility in animals and humans, protect from witchcraft, chase away evil spirits, purify the soul, neutralize poisons, and allow one to see and speak with ghosts.

With all these benefits (apart from seeing ghosts) it’s no wonder mistletoe gained its reputation as a good luck charm. And not only does it keep people safe, it protects their homes as well.

Protects Homes

According to an old tradition, mistletoe would be hung in the home 3-4 weeks before Christmas, but only after removing the old one from the previous year. You had to be careful to not let it touch the ground, then you burned it in the fireplace to protect the house from fire as well as from being struck by lightning. Mistletoe could also be hung on the back of the basement and attic doors to chase away any evil spirits that might be lurking there.

Mistletoe sellers pd
Mistletoe Sellers (Marchands de Gui)

Reconciles Differences

In olden days, if enemies chanced to meet in the woods under a mystical ball of mistletoe, they were to call a truce and lay down their weapons. Today, in the same spirit, we hang mistletoe in our homes at holiday time, and we must kiss those that we meet under it – even if we don’t like them. We have to pretend, just like the enemies in the woods.

When to Use It: Christmas or New Year?

In the US, kissing under the mistletoe is associated with the Christmas holiday season, but in France it was traditionally a New Years Eve custom. Kissing under the mistletoe as the clock chimed in the new year was supposed to bring good luck and, if you were in love with the person you were kissing, it would result in a wedding before year end. But today in France, the kissing season has been extended, just as it has in the US.

Mistletoe harvest in northern France
Mistletoe harvest in northern France in the 1920s or 1930s

Where to Find It

This magical plant grows abundantly in northern France where it is harvested and exported to those of us who don’t want to go into the woods looking for it. Today, in France, you can usually find it in markets during the holidays, but in days gone by, the gui sellers would arrive in December, and walk the streets loaded down with bundles of gui for those hoping for a bit of good luck or just a few kisses.

Santa on donkey
Santa and Gui delivering gifts

Another Gui – the Flying Donkey

The French word, gui, doesn’t only apply to this amazing magical plant, it was also the name of St. Nick’s donkey (before he lost his job to the reindeer). In the early history of Santa Claus (or Père Noël in French), old Saint Nick would descend from the sky riding his flying donkey called Gui. They would land on the rooftops, then slide down the chimneys to leave gifts. Children would line up their shoes by the fireplace and fill them with carrots or apples for Gui. The donkey would have his snack, then Santa would refill the shoes with small gifts and sweets. In some parts of northern France this is still the custom on the Festival of Saint Nicholas on the 6 December.

A little holiday joke: If athletes get athlete’s foot, what do astronauts get? ……Missile-toe!  Ho Ho Ho! (Sorry, this joke only works with the American pronunciation of missile.)

Christmas card 02

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Mistletoe and a Flying Donkey
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Margo Lestz
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    1. Do they not have mistletoe in the Christmas markets in Italy? We are in Spain and it is all over the place.
      I’m glad someone liked my corny joke… It just seemed so fitting.
      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you. We definitely have to plan to get together in 2016. If not, the year will just speed by like the rest of them have…

  1. Great post! I have also been curious about mistletoe but, being lazy of mind, have never bothered to investigate its story. We also have it growing high in the trees around us here in the Haute Savoie but I think I’ll play it safe and get some from the market!

    1. Thanks. I agree that the market is the best bet for your mistletoe. We wouldn’t want you falling out of one of those trees, would we? Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  2. I had never heard of the flying donkey called Gui! How curious (pun intended)!!! Santa does look a little ridiculous on the tiny donkey – maybe he had to upgrade to a full sleigh and reindeer troop when he put all that weight on…

    1. I think you’re right. It seems that our jolly rotund Santa morphed from slender Saint Nicholas, and the little flying donkey was replaced by a whole team of flying reindeer to be able to support santa and all the big gifts that he brings. But the tradition of St. Nicholas is still alive and well in some parts of northern Europe (including northern bits of France). He comes on December 6 and still has a donkey – but I’m not sure if the donkey can still fly.

  3. My brothers used to harvest mistletoe from the Live Oaks in the foothills and sell small bags of it back in the city for a dollar each (a tidy sum back in the 60s for 2 young schoolboys). I never knew why we kissed under it, but always assumed (as a 10 yr old) that it had something to do with the money it brought in… Now I know the truth- more romantic (if a little less logical)!

    Thanks for enlightening- and entertaining- us!

    Joyeaux Noel!

    1. Joyeux Noel to you too, Jonelle!
      When we lived in the UK near Hampton Court Palace we would see the big balls of mistletoe in the trees on the palace grounds. They are really interesting to see in the winter on the bare trees – they are almost like Christmas decorations themselves.
      Happy Holidays!

  4. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Margo. I’m eager to hear about your visit to Spain. We have confirmed exchanges in Arles for the last two weeks of June and then Juan Les Pins for July! Let’s plan something writerly along with a lovely lunch to catch up! May 2016 bring all you wish for.

    1. Happy Holidays to you and yours too, Patricia. Would love to catch up with you this summer… And I’m sure it’ll be here before we know it. Can’t wait to hear about your next project. All the best for 2016!

  5. Another interesting post – guess the joke works better with an american accent!! Quite sadly, according to a survey by Morrisons supermarket in the UK, 71 per cent of under-35s have never kissed anyone under the mistletoe.! Maybe Trollope in ‘The Mistletoe Bough’ written in 1861 has something to do with it!! He lamented the decline of the quaint old custom of kissing under the mistletoe, when his narrator said. “Kissing, I fear, is less innocent now than it used to be when our grandmothers were alive.”!! Happy Christmas and I hope you have a fabulous 2016.

    1. Oh, that’s right… I guess that joke doesn’t work so well with the British pronunciation of missile. Sorry about that.

      If Trollope thought kissing had lost its innocence by 1861, what would he think today?

      Have a wonderful Christmas and watch out for that mistletoe. 🎅🏽

  6. Oh nooooooooooo! I had assumed we were safe from mistletoe kissing here in France. #AllAboutFrance

  7. I’ve never kissed under mistletoe, maybe one year! What a lot of history behind this tradition and mistletoe itself. Thanks for all this fabulous info Margo. I always enjoy your informative posts… Annette #AllAboutFrance

  8. Interesting, as usual. I didn’t know about the donkey! We always go out and get our mistletoe in the woods although it’s often in hard-to-get-to places. We always kiss under ours at New Year.

    1. Wow, I’m very impressed that you harvest your own mistletoe! The ones I’ve seen are usually high up in the trees and look like they would be very difficult to get. I guess a flying donkey would come in handy. 🙂

  9. Very entertaining and interesting! Mistletoe grows abundantly here in Luxembourg, but hanging it in the houses and kissing under it is not something that has made it into local traditions. By contrast, St. Nicholas is still going strong AND he arrives by donkey. Apparently the donkey flies (how else could he make it here all the way from Lapland?) but I’ve never actually seen this happen. Pity… #AllAboutFrance

    1. It’s interesting how customs vary in different areas. I wonder if the mistletoe in Luxembourg is harvested and sent to countries that do enjoy kissing under it.
      And don’t give up hope… this just might be the year that you spot that flying donkey!

  10. Informative article. I had no idea the French originally associated it with the New Year. I used to work in a florist and this plant was so difficult! It quickly dries out and goes brown.

    1. Thanks, Curiousprovence. I guess even when it is brown and dried out, it still protects the home from all sorts of evil – so it’s best not to throw it out… 🙂

  11. How interesting. Here we are supposed to pluck a berry from the mistletoe for each kiss until it is bare, but actually my mistletoe is plastic! It saves the carpet from squashed berries 😉

  12. So many things I didn’t know about mistletoe (and I do love your joke even if it doesn’t quite work with my accent!) Both my parents (English/Australian) and my in-laws (French) have always hung mistletoe during les fêtes to kiss under and I used to dread having to kiss my father in law under it at Christmas (not New Year, perhaps because I was never with them at NYE)! Thanks for linking this to #AllAboutFrance, wishing you a very happy Christmas Margo!

    1. How interesting! Do you know other stories about winged donkeys? I would love to know about them.
      Thank you. All the best, -Margo

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