Mistletoe: Mystical Parasite
Mistletoe was long considered a plant with sacred powers. For a parasitic plant, it has come a long way.
As a parasitic plant, mistletoe grows on the trunks of other trees, actually sending out roots that penetrate the host tree and take valuable nutrients. The mistletoe that is commonly used as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens) is a North American native and is most often seen in maples and elms from New Jersey to Florida. European mistletoe, Viscum album, is thought to be the original and true mistletoe. Both types have dark green leaves and white sticky berries. The plant is propagated by birds that eat the berries. Berries stick on their bills and are then flown to other trees where they are deposited haphazardly.
Seeds are also spread through the droppings of birds, and it is actually this occurrence that has given the plant its name. In Anglo-Saxon culture, "mistel" means "dung", and "tan" means "twig." So, literally, mistletoe means "dung on a twig." Because the plants were seen to grow mysteriously from bird dung, ancient people thought that the mistletoe had mystical powers of life, vitality, and fertility. By the 16th century, it was known that mistletoe was growing from seeds that had traveled through the digestive tracts of the birds, but the belief in the sacred and mystical powers of mistletoe remained.
In Europe, mistletoe was most commonly seen in apple trees. Mistletoe in oak trees was rare and was considered by the ancient Celtic Druids to have sacred powers. They believed it could cure illnesses, serve as an antidote to poisons, ensure fertility, and protect against evil witchcraft. On the sixth night of the moon, white-robed Druid priests would ceremoniously cut the mistletoe from the oak tree with a golden sickle. Two white bulls would be sacrificed with prayers offered that the recipients of the mistletoe would prosper.
Kissing under the mistletoe was first known to have occurred in the Greek festival of Saturnalia and also with primitive marriage rites. Because mistletoe was a symbol of good fortune and fertility, a bride and groom would kiss under this mystical herb to ensure a home full of children and happiness. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was also considered a plant of peace, and enemies would often meet under the plant to declare a truce. Spouses who were fighting could also kiss and make up under the mistletoe.
According to other sources, the Anglo-Saxons connected the mystical mistletoe to Freya, the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. According to their legends, a man had to kiss any young girl who accidentally found herself beneath a sprig of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling.
Although much of the significance of the custom has long been forgotten, the custom of kissing under the mistletoe is alive and well in America, Europe, and Canada.