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Will Brits embrace economic recovery under the mistletoe this Christmas?

Stephen Beard Dec 13, 2021
Heard on:
Mistletoe consultant Jonathan Briggs surrounded by his beloved berries. "It's not surprising it was seen as something magical," he said. Mimisse Beard

Will Brits embrace economic recovery under the mistletoe this Christmas?

Stephen Beard Dec 13, 2021
Heard on:
Mistletoe consultant Jonathan Briggs surrounded by his beloved berries. "It's not surprising it was seen as something magical," he said. Mimisse Beard

This may be one of Britain’s most bizarre economic indicators: The annual mistletoe auction is back.

The United Kingdom’s only national sale of these amorous Yuletide sprigs of evergreen leaves and translucent white berries resumed recently, after it was canceled last year due to COVID restrictions. Optimists argued that if the sale went well, this could imply the end of social distancing and the economic damage caused, in some sense a return to normality.

Last year’s cancellation was a shock. There had been a mistletoe auction every year in the small town of Tenbury Wells in the rural English Midlands for around a century and a half. The plant — Viscum album — is a parasite that sprouts out of host plants, especially the apple trees that grow prolifically across a broad swath of countryside around Tenbury.

“Queen Victoria called it ‘my little town in the orchard,’” explained Jonathan Briggs, a botanist and self-styled mistletoe consultant. “Surrounded by apple trees, it is right in the middle of mistletoe-growing country. I suspect many towns around here once held specialist mistletoe auctions in the late 19th century, but this is the only one left.”

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas is believed to have started during Victoria’s reign, although the plant had been revered in Europe for millennia because its dark green leaves and bright, translucent berries grew in the middle of winter out of an otherwise dead-looking tree. “It’s not surprising that it was seen as something magical to ancient peoples,” Briggs said.

So is the plant set for its own wintertime revival? Or has COVID-19 proven to be the kiss of death for mistletoe?

Mistletoe auctioneer Nick Champion smiles for a photo.
“Kissing isn’t ideal, is it, in the pandemic?” said mistletoe auctioneer Nick Champion. (Photo by Mimisse Beard)

Before resuming the sale this year, auctioneer Nick Champion sounded a little apprehensive. “With this COVID scare again, I don’t know what’s going to happen today,” he said. “But we’ll see. Kissing isn’t ideal, is it, in the pandemic?”

But the omens before the auction were good. Inspecting the clumps of berry-laden foliage were dozens of buyers, easily as many as in previous years. They came from across the Midlands and southern England and some from even further afield.

“We’ve come from Holland,“ said Elizabeth Devries, who, with her husband, Jan, runs what they call a Victorian market every Christmas in the Netherlands. “We sell the produce that people want for a traditional Christmas. You can get some mistletoe in Holland, but not as much or of the same quality we can get here.”

Jan and Elizabeth Devries
“You can get some mistletoe in Holland but not as much or of the same quality we can get here,” said Elizabeth Devries, shown with husband Jan. (Photo by Mimisse Beard)

All the buyers were confident that they would be able to sell the plant to their customers.

Chris Markeridge, who runs a flower shop in Wolverhampton, which is around 35 miles from Tenbury, doesn’t believe that COVID has put people off mistletoe. “After all,“ he said, “most of the time you pucker up with people you know, people who are in your bubble.”

Lesley Passey, a wholesaler, agreed that during the pandemic, people would mostly smooch with their nearest and dearest under the mistletoe. “And that’s a good thing too!” she laughed.

But mistletoe consultant Jonathan Briggs — a stickler for tradition — does not approve.

“The concept of mistletoe is that you kiss somebody who’s definitely not in your bubble. That’s the whole point. You can kiss people in your bubble anytime. You want to kiss people outside your bubble,” he insisted.

Andrew Leaning examines a clump of mistletoe he may bid for.
Andrew Leaning of Bunkers Hill Plant Nursery examines a clump of mistletoe he may bid for. (Photo by Mimisse Beard)

Andrew Leaning, who runs the Bunkers Hill Plant Nursery near Woodstock in Oxfordshire, suggested that strangers could “osculate” wearing masks. And Charlotte Howard, a garden designer from Bath, proposed fist-bumping under the mistletoe instead.

Whichever approach they favored, none of the buyers thought that COVID has forever squashed the romantic appeal of that little, white berry. And they proved it when the auction got underway.

The bidding was brisk, the prices higher than expected at around $40 a clump — and every lot sold. As Lesley Passey wheeled away a teetering mountain of berries and leaves, she agreed that demand for mistletoe was definitely not declining. “It sold well today,” she said.

In strict financial terms, the auction was not a big deal. The total value of the lots sold was only around $40,000. But much more was riding on this annual auction. 

People stand around mistletoe as the auction gets underway.
The mistletoe auction gets underway. (Photo by Mimisse Beard)

The small, rural town of Tenbury Wells promotes itself as the mistletoe capital of the world and even celebrates the plant with an annual festival that culminates in the crowning of a local mistletoe queen and king holly.

Diann Dowell poses for a picture in front of a sign that reads "Supporting Life. Therapeutic Centre and Social Hub."
“The plant will draw the people in,” said Diann Dowell. (Photo by Mimisse Beard)

The mistletoe connection has increased visitor footfall, said local businessperson and festival organizer Diann Dowell. She runs a center for alternative therapies in the town and speaks of mistletoe in almost mystical terms.

“The plant will draw the people in. That’s the beauty of the berry,” she said. “When I really look at that berry, it is like finding the pearl at the bottom of the ocean. The magic in that! I know that because I feel it. I feel it.”  

Will the return of the mistletoe auction herald the end of social distancing in Britain and help reinvigorate the economy? Perhaps not, with omicron anxiety sweeping the land. But with its evergreen leaves and luminous, white berries, this curious plant may at least perform its ancient role as a symbol of life and hope in midwinter.

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