Hanging mistletoe over a doorway during the holiday season is a tradition around the world. But have you ever stopped to think about the story behind it? Where did it come from? Why do we kiss just because we're standing underneath some shrubbery?
In this article, you'll find out about mistletoe, how it grows and how it is spread. You'll learn about ancient people's understanding of biology and how they put it to use in their stories and myths. The next time you stand under mistletoe, you'll have a whole new understanding of this intriguing plant.
The word "mistletoe" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words, "mistel" (dung) and "tan" (twig) -- misteltan is the Old English version of mistletoe. It's thought that the plant is named after bird droppings on a branch [source: mwrop.org].
One of the beliefs in the early centuries was that mistletoe grew from birds. People used to believe that, rather than just passing through birds in the form of seeds, the mistletoe plant was an inherent result of birds landing in the branches of trees.
So how did this plant become entwined with Christmas? The holiday has assimilated a wide range of customs and traditions from many cultures, and mistletoe is one of them. For example, one French tradition holds that the reason mistletoe is poisonous is because it was growing on a tree that was used to make the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Because of this, it was cursed and denied a place to live and grow on Earth, forever to be a parasite [source: Saupe].
In the next section, we'll look at the characteristics of mistletoe and learn how mistletoe seeds are spread.
Characteristics of Mistletoe
Mistletoe (Phoradendron flavescens or Viscum album) is a parasitic plant that grows on trees, particularly hardwood trees like oak and apple. A parasite is a plant or animal that needs another plant or animal to survive. As mistletoe grows on a tree and uses its roots to invade a tree's bark, which allows mistletoe to absorb the tree's nutrients. Sometimes, mistletoe can harm a tree and cause deformities in a tree's branches, but usually it doesn't kill its host. If the host dies, the mistletoe dies.
Mistletoe produces its own food by photosynthesis, and is able to live on its own, although it is mostly found in trees. It's common for a mistletoe plant to grow on top of another mistletoe plant.
Mistletoe is easy to spot in the winter because its leaves stay green all year long. In the United States, it grows in tropical and subtropical regions (from New Jersey to Florida). Mistletoe has pointy, green, leathery leaves, with waxy berries that are either red or white. The plant's flowers can be a wide variety of colors, from bright red to yellow to green.
Ingesting mistletoe can cause severe stomach cramps and diarrhea, and in some cases can be fatal. If you have mistletoe in your house this holiday season, be sure that it is in a place where children and pets won't be able to get to it.
Spreading the Seed
The red-and-white berries that grow on mistletoe are eaten by birds that eventually leave their droppings at their favorite hang-out spot -- on a tree branch. The droppings contain seeds that sprout roots into the tree branch. The birds also help spread the seed by wiping their beaks on the tree bark to clean off the sticky seeds after they've eaten. The seeds are sticky because of the juice inside the berry. This stickiness helps the seeds stay in the tree rather than falling to the ground. Within six weeks, the mistletoe plant begins growing, although it takes five years to flower.
In the next section, we'll look at the history behind mistletoe and find out what ancient Druids used it for.
There are a lot of myths surrounding mistletoe. Vikings dating back to the eighth century believed that mistletoe had the power to raise humans from the dead, relating to the resurrection of Balder, the god of the summer sun.
Balder had a dream that he was going to die. His mother, Frigga, the goddess of love and beauty, was frantic about his dream and said that if he died, everything on Earth would die. To ensure her son's safety, Frigga went to all of the elements -- air, fire, water and earth, as well as to all of the animals and plants -- and asked them not to kill Balder. In the same way a child would be heckled these days if his mother asked kids not to pick on her child, Balder was teased and had things thrown at him. It was thought that, because of his mother's power, he was immune to harm.
Balder's only enemy, Loki, found a loophole in Frigga's request for her son's safety -- mistletoe. Mistletoe grows on the tree it attaches itself to, and therefore has no roots of its own and could not be affected by Frigga's request. Loki made a poisoned dart with mistletoe, and tricked the blind brother of Balder, Hoder, into shooting the arrow that killed Balder.
For three days, all the elements tried their hardest to bring Balder back to life, but failed. Finally, the tears that Frigga cried for her dead son changed the red mistletoe berries to white, raising Balder from the dead. Frigga then reversed mistletoe's bad reputation, and kissed everyone who walked underneath it out of gratitude for getting her son back [source: Reshetiloff].
The Miracle Worker
Another myth in mistletoe's past comes from Britain. In the first century, the Druids in Britain believed that mistletoe could perform miracles, from providing fertility to humans and animals to healing diseases and protecting people from witchcraft.
The Druids would cut mistletoe off oak trees in a special ceremony five days after the new moon following the winter solstice. The Druids believed that the mistletoe would become contaminated if it touched the ground, so they used a special white cloth to catch it. The Druids then sacrificed two white bulls while prayers were said, and priests gave out the mistletoe sprigs to the people, who believed they would then be kept safe from evil spirits and storms [source: Reshetiloff].
In the next section, we'll look at why we smooch under mistletoe.
Kissing Under the Berries
Mistletoe is also said to be a sexual symbol, because of the consistency and color of the berry juice as well as the belief that it is an aphrodisiac, the “soul” of the oak from which it grows. The origin of the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is vague. However, the tradition may have stemmed from either the Viking association of the plant with Frigga (the goddess of love) or from the ancient belief that mistletoe was related to fertility. Another explanation for the tradition is that it is derived from the festival of Saturnalia, a popular mid-December celebration in ancient Rome [source: BBC.com].
One legend states that a couple who kisses underneath mistletoe will have good luck, but a couple neglecting to perform the ritual will have bad luck. Specifically, it is believed that a couple kissing under the mistletoe ensure themselves of marriage and a long, happy life, while an unmarried woman not kissed under the mistletoe will remain single for another year.
Maidens may place a sprig of the plant under their pillow at night in the same manner a child places his or her lost tooth in anticipation of a visit from the Tooth Fairy. Instead of exchanging teeth for money, however, the sprig of Mistletoe allows women to dream of their Prince Charming. Burning a mistletoe plant is also thought to foretell a woman’s marital bliss, or lack thereof. A mistletoe that burns steadily prophesies a healthy marriage, while fickle flames may doom a woman to an ill-suited partner.
While mistletoe is widely viewed as a symbol of love and fertility, it's also representative of peace. Ancient tales tell of enemies who encounter each other underneath trees bearing mistletoe. The enemies lay down their arms, embrace, and agree to a truce until the next day [source: Perry]. This act of goodwill is yet another possibility for why we kiss under mistletoe: abstaining from violence and exchanging greetings under the plant may have prompted the custom of kissing.
For more information on mistletoe and related topics, visit the next page.
More Great Links
- “Hiker’s Notebook: Mistletoe.” Sierra Club’s Metropolitan Washington Regional Outings Program http://www.mwrop.org/W_Needham/Mistletoe_041226.htm
- "New light on old Christmas traditions." BBC News. December 20, 1999. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/572370.stm
- Perry, Leonard. “A Kiss Under the Mistletoe.” University of Vermont Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science.
- Reshetiloff, Kathy. “Parasitic plant’s popularity rooted in myths, legends.” The Bay Journal. December 1994, Vol. 4, Issue 9. http://www.bayjournal.com/article.cfm?article=2314
- Saupe, Stephen G. “Parasites are Welcome for Christmas.” Sagatagan Seasons, Winter 2002. http://www.employees.csbsju.edu/ssaupe/essays/mistletoe.htm