by Sara Williams
Kissing under the mistletoe has long been a part of Christmas tradition. But just what is mistletoe and how did it's association with Christmas evolve?
About the Plant - Mistletoe is especially interesting botanically because it is a partial parasite (a "hemiparasite"). As a parasitic plant, it grows on the branches or trunk of a tree and actually sends out roots that penetrate into the tree and take up nutrients. But mistletoe is also capable for growing on its own; like other plants it can produce its own food by photosynthesis. Mistletoe, however, is more commonly found growing as a parasitic plant.
There are two types of mistletoe. The mistletoe that is commonly used as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens) is native to North America and grows as a parasite on trees from New Jersey to Florida. The other type of mistletoe,Viscum album, is of European origin. The Greeks and earlier peoples thought that it had mystical powers and down through the centuries it became associated with many folklore customs.
The European mistletoe is a green shrub with small, yellow flowers and white, sticky berries which are considered poisonous. It commonly seen on apple but only rarely on oak trees. The rarer oak mistletoe was greatly venerated by the ancient Celts and Germans and used as a ceremonial plant by early Europeans.
The traditions which began with the European mistletoe were transferred to the similar American plant with the process of immigration and settlement.
Origins of its name - The common name of the plant is derived from the ancient belief that mistletoe was propagated from bird droppings. This belief was related to the then-accepted principle that life could spring spontaneously from dung. It was observed in ancient times that mistletoe would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings. "Mistel" is the Anglo-Saxon word for "dung," and "tan" is the word for "twig". So, mistletoe means "dung-on-a-twig".
By the sixteenth century, botanists had discovered that the mistletoe plant was spread by seeds which had passed through the digestive tract of birds. One of the earliest written references to this appeared in England, in 1532, in an Herbal published by Turner. Botanists of the time also observed that the sticky berry seeds of the mistletoe tended to cling to the bills of birds. When the birds cleaned their bills by rubbing them against the branches or bark of trees, the the seeds were further scattered.
The magical tradtions - From the earliest times mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore. It was considered a bestower of life and fertility; a protectant against poison; and an aphrodisiac.
The mistletoe of the sacred oak was especially sacred to the ancient Celtic Druids. On the sixth night of the moon white-robed Druid priests would cut the oak mistletoe with a golden sickle. Two white bulls would be sacrificed amid prayers that the recipients of the mistletoe would prosper.
Later, the ritual of cutting the mistletoe from the oak came symbolize the emasculation of the old King by his successor. Mistletoe was long regarded as both a sexual symbol and the "soul" of the oak. It was gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices, and the custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is a survival of the Druid and other pre-Christian traditions. (Mistletoe is still ceremonially plucked on mid-summer eve in some Celtic and Scandinavian countries.)
In the Middle Ages and later, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits. In Europe they were placed over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches.
It was also believed that the oak mistletoe could extinguish fire. This was associated with an earlier belief that the mistletoe itself could come to the tree during a flash of lightning.
In parts of England and Wales farmers would give the Christmas bunch of mistletoe to the first cow that calved in the New Year. This was thought to bring good luck to the entire herd.
Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with )the Greek festival of Saturnalia) and later with primitive marriage rites. Mistletoe was believed to have the power of bestowing fertility, and the dung from which the mistletoe was thought to arise was also said to have "life-giving" power.
In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses kiss and make-up.
In some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe is burned on the twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry.
And for those who wish to observe the correct etiquette: a man should pluck a berry when he kisses a woman under the mistletoe, and when the last berry is gone, there should be no more kissing!
A health to mistletoe and a Merry Christmas!