In My Backyard - Issue #5 - Mistletoe

We all know mistletoe to be that beautiful holly look-alike that people hang up around Christmas time in doorways to catch wandering couples and embarrass them. But did you know that the plant is not really like holly?

The mistletoe plant grows in many different trees, most often seen at or near the top, resembling an old squirrel nest, or the semblance of a worm infestation. Upon a closer look, it appears bushy with white berries and smooth evergreen leaves. Another thing you might not have known about mistletoe is it is a hemi-parasitic plant, one of few, meaning that is receives some nutrition from its host, in this case, a tree. Now when discussing parasitism we end up wondering how it came to find its host. Mistletoe's story is quite interesting.

It so happens the berries are eaten by birds, the seeds which then pass through the bird end up in their feces. Then the seed germinates and attaches itself to the tree where it begins to grow. Mistletoe has a haustorium that protrudes into the tree as its roots. It does not get all its nutrients from the host, however, and therefore must photosynthesize as well.

The plant is poisonous but there are many different suspected usages. Herbalists suggest using the leaves and young twigs for treating circulatory and respiratory system problems. And then, in South Africa the berries are chewed until the sticky substance in the berries form strands which are then attached to branches to catch small animals and birds. Its questionable as to just how poisonous they are and how some of these uses are possible. I would not recommend trying any of these until one is extremely sure of the proper way.

The word mistletoe, or formerly mistletan, is Anglo-Saxon for literally "dung-on-a-twig". What a nice notion. So how, you must wonder, did the tradition of kissing under such an object begin? As with all traditions and customs within our cultures no one can really know for sure how it started but here is one story of how it came to be.

In Greek mythology the story goes that Balder, the god of the summer sun, had dreams of his death. His mother, Frigga, the goddess of love and beauty, to protect her son, made all the elements, such as air, fire, water, and earth, as well as all the animals and plants, promise not to hurt her son. All of them did except for mistletoe for it was supposed that the plant was too young. The god of mischief, Loki, made a dart from the poison of mistletoe and managed to kill Balder. His mother was horrified. Her tears were said to have colored the mistletoe’s berries white instead of red and therefore brought her son back to life. Afterward, everyone who walked under the mistletoe would receive a kiss from Frigga in gratitude for her son's life.

Now how that started the actual tradition, I have no idea.

There was more to the tradition than just a mere kiss. For in 1820, it was mentioned by American author Washington Irving in his "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon":

"The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases."

Clearly, the privilege only lasted as long as the berries remained. And another belief was that it brought good luck. Any couple who did not kiss under the mistletoe should expect bad luck throughout their marriage. A single woman would burn a sprig of mistletoe and if it burned well she would make a good marriage but if it burned badly she would marry someone no good. And so on they go. Tradition after tradition but no sure answer to where it came from.

As with so many customs in our culture they eventually come to take on their own meaning. They are the element of Christmas that makes us realize it has finally arrived. Or they are a symbol of the joy of the season. Whatever they mean to you, they mean something different to the next person. And how pleasant it is to put them up each year. Its that time again.

Picure from Karen'
Merry Christmas!

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