Week 123 – The Mistletoe Bough

A sad story for your Christmas holidays. The words of this song were written in the early 1830s by Nathaniel Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797-1839), who also wrote the words of ‘Home Sweet Home’); the music was written by Sir Henry Bishop.

It seems to have been a very popular and well-known song. I first came across it in Bob Copper’s book Early to Rise, and on his solo LP Sweet Rose in June. I learned Bob’s version, although it was never a song that I sang very often. Then in 1995 I got to sing it on the Mellstock Band CD Songs of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, the Mellstock Band consisting for that track of Mark Emerson and Kathryn Locke. The Mellstock recording featured, I’m told, on the 15th December edition of Mariella Frostrup’s Open Book programme on Radio 4, in connection with a review of Kate Mosse’s recent collection, The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales.

By coincidence, on the very same day as that was broadcast, Linda Sergeant shared with me this 1904 silent film of The Mistletoe Bough story, recently restored by the British Film Institute – thanks Linda.

The Mistletoe Bough, still from Percy Stow's 1904 silent film; image copyright BFI.

The Mistletoe Bough, still from Percy Stow’s 1904 silent film; image copyright BFI.

The Mistletoe Bough

9 Responses to “Week 123 – The Mistletoe Bough”

  1. Thanks to Valmai Goodyear from the Lewes Saturday Folk Club for pointing out that:

    It must have been universally known, because Leslie Sarony’s (1897-1985) comic song ‘Years and Years and Years’ includes the verse:

    ‘A nice folding bed we had hidden away
    For years and years and years
    To put up our friends when they wanted to stay
    For years and years and years
    But sorry to say, like the mistletoe bough
    Something went wrong with the spring somehow
    And my mother-in-law has been shut in it now
    For years and years and years.’

    see http://www.monologues.co.uk/Comic_Songs/Years_and_Years.htm

    And thanks to Peter Wilton for reminding me of the parody, ‘The Workhouse Boy’ – see http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/static/images/sheets/20000/18572.gif for an example from the Bodleian which includes the wonderful lines:

    “To gain his fill the boy did stoop
    And, dreadful to tell, he vos boil’d in the soup”

  2. It was known up here in Derbyshire too, Andy. Alison Uttley,writing about her childhood at Cromford around 1900 mentions it as the party piece of one of their farm workers.

  3. Valmai Goodyear has sent me another parody, this one dating from the 1930s, and passed to her by the lovely Sussex singer Bob Lewis:

    Composed by Peter Lawson
    From Newnes Home Musical Vol 1. 1930s
    Supplied by Bob Lewis

    The mistletoe hung in the castle hall
    The Squire was there and the villagers all,
    Merry and bright, they sang, ‘Hooray!
    We’re keeping our Christmas holiday!’
    A little dog sat on the garden wall,
    And sighed as he looked through the windows tall,
    ‘I wish I was in with the Christmas tree,
    For there’s plenty to eat and a plenty to see.’

    O, the mistletoe bough (BOW-WOW!)
    O, the mistletoe bough!

    The bachelor Squire was a gay old spark
    And he spied a corner where it was dark;
    A plump and buxom spinster maid
    Sitting a-neath the mistletoe shade.
    Quoth he, ‘Though a bachelor I would die,
    To give her a kiss I now will try,
    For surely nobody else will see,
    So busy are they with the Christmas tree.’

    The little dog jumped through the window tall
    And caused a commotion right through the hall.
    He knocked clean over the Christmas tree
    Which burst into flame – oh, miseree!
    It lit up the corner where ‘twas dark
    And showed up the gay old bachelor spark,
    Sitting aneath the mistletoe green
    And kissing the spinster maid like steam.

    The elderly spinster fainted away
    And didn’t recover until the day
    They set the wedding bells a-swing
    And the jolly old Squire had bought the ring.

    Like a fine old English gentleman,
    One of the olden time.

  4. Irene Shettle, meanwhile, has sent me some information about the song’s author, Thomas Haynes Bayly.

    Irene writes as follows:

    An American commentator of the “nineties”, Henry Frederic Reddall,took unkind delight in swatting this poetical butterfly in remarking that he had
    “considerable wit and humour, but his sentiment was often mere sentimentalism, his love lackadaisical, and his melancholy very genteel and effeminate – wearing white gloves and wiping its eyes, in which there were no tears, with a highly perfumed pocket-handkerchief – a very Mantalini of the art of poetastry”

    For purely factual information on Bayly, see http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/AuthorRecord.php?&method=GET&recordid=33677

  5. Finally (perhaps) I should point out some Kentish connections for the Mistletoe Bough.

    I recorded Charlie Bridger singing it, in April 1983, while a recording of the song was also included on the CD In Yonder Green Oak by the Millen Family – see http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/millens.htm

    George Frampton’s notes to the CD note “I was also told by the late Sid Sergeant of Woodchurch, that this tune also featured in the repertoire of the Woodchurch Band”. Charlie Bridger was a member of the Woodchurch Band, along with his gather and grandfather – see Week 82 – The Birds upon the Tree https://afolksongaweek.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/week-82-the-birds-upon-the-tree/

  6. I was very interested in your story about Mistletoe Bough because I read about it in an American letter dated 9 Aug 1840 which states: It is called the “Mistletoe Waltz” – two pages, and sounds as would the “Mistletoe bough” with variations, it is very “brilliant”. The author of the letter is asking her daughter to find the sheet music.

    Would you happen to know anything about Mistletoe Waltz derived from Mistletoe Bough? There is mention of “the much admired ‘Mistletoe Waltz’ ” in the 18 Jan 1863 edition of Bells Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (London, England), although I don’t know if this is the same song. I didn’t find it by searching the Library of Congress, and don’t know where else to look.


    Linda Freeman


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