Mistletoe Myth

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As do many others, I like to hang a few sprigs of real mistletoe in my home every Yule season.  This year I acquired a nice big bunch with berries attached and adorned with a red velvet bow from an eBay seller in S. Carolina.  The mistletoe was harvested and shipped fresh.

I suspend the mistletoe from the pull chain of the ceiling fan in the livingroom, a perfect spot to catch the unsuspecting for a quick peck or to entice my husband for something a bit more romantic. I’ve often wondered about the origins of the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.

The plant is classified as hemiparasitic, meaning it is a tree parasite, growing on branches and trunks and sending roots into the host to take water and nutrients, but it also can live by its own photosynthesis. There are over 1300 species of mistletoe in the world.  The most familiar are the European and American species. My mistletoe is Phoradendron flarescens, from N. America.  While mistletoe grows on oak, it particularly likes apple trees.

The balls of mistletoe shrubs in trees make good nesting places. The flowers are visited by insects.  The berries are eaten by many species of birds and mammals.  These berries contain a sticky substance that causes the animals’ feces to adhere to tree branches, spreading the plant.  Mistletoe also employs forceful seed ejection.  A touch will scatter an explosion of seeds, allowing some to catch in crevices of bark.

Mistletoe has been an honored plant since at least the time of the Greeks.  They associated it with fertility and life and used it in marriage ceremonies.  The Celts also bestowed these magic qualities on mistletoe and the most revered plants were taken from the sacred oaks.  Druids harvested mistletoe for use during solstice rites.  Frigga, Scandinavian goddess of love, favored the mistletoe.  It is interwoven in the tale of the death and rebirth of the sun god (the winter solstice.)  Truces between battling war lords in Scandinavia were made beneath the plant.

With all the connotations of love, fertility, life and peace, it is small wonder that mistletoe was used by Europeans as part of holiday celebrations.  Couples who kissed beneath sprigs or balls (kissing balls) of the plant were said to be bound for marriage.  (If they were kissing, it’s a pretty good assumption they would wed anyway!)

Traditions migrated with people and the mistletoe myth came to America.  So that today, we can enjoy a laugh and a quick peck or a good snog under the leathery leaves and tiny white berries of this venerable plant.

 

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