Sunday, December 20, 2009


Sweet emblem of returning peace, the heart's full gush and love's release,
Spirits in human fondness flow and greet the pearly mistletoe.
Oh! Happy tricksome time of mirth, giv'n to the stars of sky and earth!
May all the best of feeling know, the custom of the mistletoe.
Married and single, proud and free, yield to the season, trim with glee:
Time will not stay ... he cheats us so ... A kiss? ... 'tis gone ... the mistletoe.
(Unknown author.  Written December, 1826) 

The Facts About Mistletoe:

Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Santalales

A hemi-parasitic plant that survives on the branches of a host tree or shrub, varieties of Mistletoe can be found throughout the world.  The unusual common name of the plant is thought to have originated from the German words "mist" meaning dung and "tang" meaning branch. (Um, yeah.  I know.  But, well, I don't make the facts, I just report them.)   Anyway...  Apparently our ancestors, the originators of language, were aware that mistletoe was spread from branch to branch through the medium of avian feces and titled the little "sucker" accordingly.  (Ahem).  Though types of mistletoe can be found throughout Europe, it is the eastern American variety, Phoradendron flavescens, which is grown commercially, and, therefore, most commonly recognized.

The Downside of Mistletoe:

Mistletoe is often considered a pest that, with heavy infestation, kills trees.  It's also poisonous.  The berries and leaves of most mistletoe varieties contain viscotoxins which can cause symptoms ranging from upset stomach to convulsions and even death -- a good reason to be sure that if your mistletoe is not high in the branches of a tree, it should be safely hung high in a doorway, out of the reach of animals and small children.

The Upside of Mistletoe:

As reported in Wikipedia:  Mistletoe has been "recently recognized as an ecological keystone species, an organism that has a disproportionately pervasive influence over its community.[7] A broad array of animals depend on mistletoe for food, consuming the leaves and young shoots, transferring pollen between plants, and dispersing the sticky seeds. The dense evergreen witches' brooms formed by the dwarf mistletoes (Arceuthobium species) of western North America also make excellent locations for roosting and nesting of the Northern Spotted Owls and the Marbled Murrelets. In Australia the Diamond Firetails and Painted Honeyeaters are recorded as nesting in different mistletoes. This behavior is probably far more widespread than currently recognized; more than 240 species of birds that nest in foliage in Australia have been recorded nesting in mistletoe, representing more than 75% of the resident avifauna.[citation needed]
A study of mistletoe in junipers concluded that more juniper berries sprout in stands where mistletoe is present, as the mistletoe attracts berry-eating birds which also eat juniper berries.[8] Such interactions lead to dramatic influences on diversity, as areas with greater mistletoe densities support higher diversities of animals. Thus, rather than being a pest, mistletoe can have a positive effect on biodiversity, providing high quality food and habitat for a broad range of animals in forests and woodlands worldwide."

But,  more pertinent than all that:

 Mistletoe has the distinction of being the only member of the plant kingdom that elicits a conditioned human response.  Almost anyone in the Western World, upon catching sight of the distinctive plant reacts instinctively in one way or another.  Some are attracted to it and carefully time their arrival under a sprig, others (especially prepubescent males) run from the sight of it.  Mistletoe is known by most everyone as the Christmas Kissing Plant.  How many stolen kisses under the mistletoe have been the spark that kindled sweet romance?  How many have kindled indignant slaps and wounded egos?  Only the mistletoe knows.

The History:

Because mistletoe bears fruit at about the time of the Winter Solstice, the birth of the new year, it was used in British Druid ritual as a symbol of immortality.  It was used in ancient times by the Celts as a remedy for barrenness in animals, and, oddly enough, it being poisonous, was used as an antidote to poison.

In Romanian traditions and among the gypsies, mistletoe is considered good luck. It is even today valued in rural areas of Romania for its medical and  "magical" properties.

It's an old Christian tradition that it was the mistletoe "tree" that provided the wood of the Cross.  After Christ's Crucifixion, the plant, humbled, shriveled to become the tiny parasitic vine it is today. The custom is that the mistletoe must not touch the ground between its cutting and its removal.  It's supposed to be the last of Christmas greenery remaining at Candlemas, and can be left to remain hanging through the year to protect the house from lightning or fire until it 's replaced the following Christmas Eve.

The Custom:

Though most of the world knows mistletoe as a Christmas decoration, its use as such doesn't appear until the 18th century, and then it appears that the custom of kissing under the mistletoe originated with our winter-cozy cousins in Scandinavia. In Norse mythology, the mother of Baldr, the god of vegetation, frightened by a prophetic dream, made every plant, animal and inanimate object promise not to harm her child. But Frigga forgot to exact the promise from the lowly mistletoe plant.  The mischievous god Loki took advantage of this oversight, and tricked the blind god Höðr into killing Baldr with a spear fashioned from (you guessed it...) mistletoe.

(A depiction of the demise of Balder. Yikes!)
 The story goes that Baldr's death blanketed the world in perpetual winter, until the gods restored him to life. In her gratitude, Frigga declared the mistletoe sacred, commanding that from that time forward it should bring love rather than death into the world. And so, complying with Frigga's wishes, Scandinavian lads and lasses passing under a mistletoe plant happily celebrated Baldr's resurrection by kissing. So they say.

Folks nowadays, though, don't know anything about the Norse mythology connection.  We generally kiss under the mistletoe because it's as good an excuse as any. 

But then there's this: Christmas is the season of heavenly joy, the season of real love -- and anything we can do to promote the sentiments of joy and love...  well, it's a good thing.  All kinds of good associations surround the history of mistletoe and swirl around our heads when we kiss beneath a sprig of it.  Don't you love the old Christian tradition that connects mistletoe with the wood of the cross?  And, it's interesting how the old Norse legend involves resurrection and gratitude.  It all seems to come full circle in an eclectic sort of way.  The wood of the cradle in our family creche... in view of the mistletoe in the living room doorway reminding us of the humbled wood of the Cross...  Christ's Resurrection and His Love.. Our love for Him and our love for one another...  It's all good. 

I love everything about mistletoe.

(I'm gonna go catch me someone under a sprig right now. I have a lovely lot of potential victims around here...)


GrandmaK said...

Thanks for this post! There is so much here that I did not know about mistletoe..Thank you! Merry Christmas!! Cathy

MightyMom said...

I've never "done"" mistletoe. ever.

Abbey said...

I love the idea of the human "response" to the mistletoe! I bought a new "ball" of mistletoe this year and it is prominently hung over the door to the kitchen .. nobody has a chance if they want to eat while they're here! LOL! Great post and Merry Christmas!