What is Mistletoe?
One of the most popular Christmas decorations is mistletoe. We hang this bit of greenery festooned with white berries in the doorways of our homes and expect both young and old to exchange kisses underneath it. What is mistletoe? How did it become associated with Christmas? And why do we kiss underneath it?
What is mistletoe?
Mistletoe originally referred to a semi—parasitical plant that is native to Britain and northern Europe. The plants are characterized by dark green oval leaves and have white berries that grow in clusters of 2 to 6 berries. After the discovery of the New World, the name was also given to a similar plant native to North America. The North American variety has leaves of the same dark green color but are rounder in shape. The berries are white and more numerous than their European cousins. The clusters contain 10 or more berries each. A third, dwarf variety, native to the western portion of North America is also called mistletoe, but is not used for decoration because it is fully parasitical and has no leaves of its own.
Mistletoe parasitizes deciduous trees. The mistletoe plants eventually grow large enough to destroy first the branch to which they are attached and eventually the entire tree. Mistletoe has its own leaves and performs some photosynthesis, but also draw nutrients from the trees to which it is parasitized. The berries are a favorite food for birds who cannot digest the seeds which are excreted. Some of those seeds land on the branches of trees where they adhere thanks to the surrounding dung from the birds’ digestive tracts. In fact, the name mistletoe derives from this method of spreading seeds. The Anglo-Saxons, who lived in ancient Britain, referred to dung as “mistel” and called twigs “tan”. So our word “mistletoe” originally meant dung on a twig. Ancient peoples were close observers of the natural world.
Once the seeds stick to a branch, they sprout and for their first year, live like any other plant, producing their own food through photosynthesis in their leaves. Meanwhile, their roots are steadily burrowing through the bark and into the interior of the branch where they eventually access the nutrients flowing throughout the tree.
How did mistletoe become associated with Christmas?
In ancient Britain, the Druids considered oak trees to be sacred. The mistletoe growing in the trees was thought to be a part of them and therefore also sacred. It was harvested with knives made of gold at certain prescribed times of the year. One of those times was the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. After that date, the daylight grew in length and a new year was born. The young Druid priests in training went from house to house, bearing the sacred mistletoe, to announce the commencement of the new year.
When Christianity began to spread throughout the ancient world and into Britain, the custom of using mistletoe during the winter solstice was adapted to the celebration of Christmas which occurs just a few days after the winter solstice. The new Christians hung mistletoe in their homes to announce the news of the birth of Christ just as their ancestors used mistletoe to announce the new year.
So why do we kiss under the mistletoe?
To understand the custom of kissing under the mistletoe, we must look to Norse mythology, specifically the myth of Baldur. Baldur was the son of Frigga, the Nordic equivalent of the Greek goddess Hera. When Baldur was born, like all new mothers, Frigga wanted to protect her son from all danger. She made every plant, every animal and every inert object promise never to harm him. The god of mischief, Loki, noticed that she accidentally overlooked the mistletoe. He hoodwinked another god, who believed that nothing could kill Baldur, into stabbing him with a spear made of mistletoe.
After the death of Baldur, the gods placed the mistletoe into the keeping of the goddess of love so that it would symbolize love and never again bring death into the world. It was decreed that when two people passed under mistletoe (growing in a tree) that they should kiss in memory of Baldur.
In colonial America, where the mistletoe bears more berries than the European variety, the custom of kissing under the mistletoe was slightly modified. Every time a two people kissed under the mistletoe in a home, they were supposed to remove one of the berries. When the berries were gone, no more kissing was allowed.
The next time you pass under mistletoe, in addition to kissing your sweetheart, take a moment to think of Baldur and his poor mother, as well as the fact that the days are getting longer and a new year is just around the corner.
© 2014 Caren White
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