Mystery of Mistletoe
by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1993 All rights reserved.
Christmas trees are decorated with lights that ward off the darkness of winter. Wreathes hanging on doors symbolize the circle of the seasons. Reminders of the Christian holiday (stars, manger scenes, candles) and the spirit of giving (Santa Claus mugs, stockings, presents) are everywhere this time of year.
Mistletoe is a parasite, growing from the branches of trees. It sucks water and nutrients from its host, sometimes destroying the tree or distorting its growth.
Birds like cedar waxwings help propogate the plant. They eat the mistletoe's berries but don't digest the seeds. Their droppings carry the germ of new mistletoe to tree limbs far and wide. Early-day Scandinavians called the plant "mistilteinn," derived from "mista," meaning dung.
From this lowly origin, mistletoe somehow became associated with hope, peace, and harmony. Perhaps because it blooms late in the year and shows berries in winter the mistletoe has attracted a lot of attention.
Among the mysterious Druids, who inhabited the British Isles centuries ago, mistletoe was a plant of particular honor and power. Enemies who chanced to meet beneath a tree with mistletoe growing on it were required to lay down their arms and forget their quarrel. Sprigs of the plant were hung in the home for harmony and good luck and outside the house to welcome visitors.
Mistletoe was "omnia sanitatem" to the Druids, meaning "all healing." They prescribed it as a cure for female infertility and as an antidote for poison.
Kissing beneath the mistletoe may have started with the Druids, or perhaps the Romans who used the plant as a decorative green at their winter parties. By 1520 it was common enough in England that the writer William Irving suggested that young men should pick a berry each time they kissed a young girl beneath the mistletoe.
The Catholic Church, during the fourth century, forbade the use of mistletoe at Christmastime because of its "idolatrous" associations, and that forbearance has lingered in Christian churches to this day. But in many secular households where Christmas is celebrated the mistletoe still lingers,like a virus that won't be shaken. Its tendrils wind their way through human history, carried on the wings of birds.