Mysterious Mistletoe

One enduring Christmas tradition worth preserving is kissing underneath a sprig of mistletoe, often suspended in a cunning way from ceiling or doorway. Any tradition involving kissing is worth keeping, am I right?

But why mistletoe, exactly?

Mistletoe – or Viscum album – is a parasitic plant that sucks the life force out of its innocent host tree, to the point of death. (The only consolation here, if you could call it that, is that, if the host tree dies, so does the mistletoe.)

Drawing energy during the starving winter months, it is a very hardy plant that stays green all winter. Not only does it sport green leaves, but its characteristic waxy, white berries, too.

Mistletoe’s evergreen characteristic is “the fundamental basis of all mid-winter traditions relating to mistletoe,” according to Jonathan Briggs, a mistletoe expert and consultant quoted in National Geographic.

Evergreens represent perpetual life, as well as the “miracle” that any plant can continue to bear leaves, much less fruits, in the cold of winter. This is why hollyhock, ivy, and fir trees also feature prominently in ancient Western pagan celebrations, especially in Germanic and Scandinavian countries.

Ironically, mistletoe is poisonous – at least, to humans. A toxic ingredient called phoratoxin, concentrated in the leaves, can cause drowsiness, blurred vision, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, weakness and seizures. Eating the plant raw or drinking it in tea can cause poisoning.

It is reassuring to note that other animals, ranging from deer and elk to squirrels, chipmunks and porcupines, along with birds (including robins, chickadees, bluebirds and mourning doves) can all eat the berries safely. And eat them they do, especially when other food is hard to find.

Mistletoes grow into thick, often rounded masses of branches and stems sometimes called “witches’ brooms,” which can reach 5-feet wide and weigh 50 pounds.

In Medieval times, mistletoe was believed to bring luck. A Norse tale about Balder, son of the goddess Frigga, explains the plant’s links to romance, love and kissing. Balder was killed by an evil spirit with an arrow made of mistletoe.

A recent article from The Sun has the inside skinny:

“Frigga was so distraught that her tears turned to white berries, coating the plant and symbolising her love for him.” Overjoyed by the white berries, she “blessed the plant and promised a kiss to all who passed beneath it from that day onward.” This evolved into a similar ancient tradition where visitors would kiss the hand of a host under the mistletoe upon arrival, to honor the Norse legend.

The first literary reference to kissing under the mistletoe occurred in late 18th century England.

Becky Little, writing for National Geographic, reveals a little-known fact:
“In the U.S., kissing under the mistletoe used to be a lot more complicated. Washington Irving wrote, in 1820, that men commonly gave women as many kisses as there were berries on the mistletoe hanging above them, plucking off one per kiss.” When the berries were all gone, so was the sprig’s romantic power.

So while you’re decking the halls, remember to hang the mistletoe, along with the chimney stockings, with care.

Then, just prepare to pucker up. You do know how to pucker, don’t you?

Lauren Bacall 1950 (Silver Screen Collection – Getty Images)

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