The Panda update (and the Panda 2 update) generally help most websites. They will negatively affect sites that have spent countless money and effort in gaining links from places that are unrelated, article warehouses, link farms and spammy blog/forum postings.
We have a client that was actually doing anywhere between 7,000 and 8,000 articles per month and them spinning those out to article places. The articles didn't necessrily relate to his site at all, but they would just insert a link as a keyword and point back to their site. (example - the site is about leaf blowers, and the articles were about automotive parts).
Google frowns highly on these, and as a result, penalizes those people for doing exactly what the Google TOS says not to do!
How to improve your rank in Google? Honesty.
Don't purchase 10,000 links from some random place.
Write content on your page. Pay no mind to keyword density or tailored content around a specific keyword. If you write, you will naturally get a keyword density of 3-5%, so don't try to trick the system.
Blog posts work. Relevant Blogs are better.
Blog comments (on your site) help with fresh content. VALID blog posts are better.
Natural links and popularity are the way to go. If you purchase "10,000 links" and overnight google think's you're popular for no reason, you can find your site falling down the ranks.
With regards to the mistletoe - your rank likely improved not so much because Google is giving you more credit for the same stuff that was on there, but likely because google removed the spammers that were ahead of you.
Years ago )1996), Bill Gates issued the phrase "Content is King" - this is very much true today. Google pays attention to the content on your site and ranks things accordingly.
I've been doing SEO since the start of my web career back in 1994. It wasn't called SEO back then, it was called "good practice in getting found"
Those same methods from the mid 90's are the exact same methods that Google says they want you to do. If you try to trick the system, they'll catch you. There's more than 300 experts with PhD's at Google working on the search engine stuff. If you think you can outsmart them with a few tricks, you're sadly mistaken.
What Google wants? Valid content. Accurate information. Verify that you're an authority on the information by getting links from other places related to your field (not purchasing or spamming links - those won't count).
If you play by the rules, follow their guidelines, and are writing honest content in your website, you'll have no problem braking into the top 10 links in Google.