“It’s supposed to be jolly, with mistletoe and holly… and other things ending in olly.” Terry Pratchett
Mistletoe, the thief of trees, cannot live on its own much like love, matchmaker; partners to keep an environment together, forest savior.
Historically mistletoe is a plant of peace, friendship, and in antiquity goodwill. If enemies met beneath it in a forest, usually a grove of oaks, arms were laid down and truce called until the next day. Strabo, Greek geographer and philosopher in the 1st century CE recorded such a meeting of the Galatin Celts, in Drunemeton in today’s modern Turkey. Warring spouses would kiss and make-up.
From the Old English/Anglo-Saxon misteltãn where tan signifies twig and mistel from mist. Mistl, means different, from its being unlike its host. Mist in old Dutch meant birdlime. Birds eat the berries and then their droppings fall to tree branches where they will sprout in a sticky substance called visco/viscin. In the 14th century mistletoe was called mystyldene and Lignum crucis. The term for modern day modern mistletoe evolved from these words.
Kissing boughs are a winter ornament made famous in England under the Tudor reign. First documented in the 16th century they initially hung in doorways welcoming guests into the home. Boughs were made of garland covering ash or willow branches in the shape of a double hoop or crown. Along with mistletoe, greenery, ribbons, ivy and holly, candles and red apples completed a joyous and cheery site of nature and warmth. The candles would be lit on Christmas Eve every night until Twelfth Night or Epiphany. At which point the boughs were removed and burned lest they bring bad luck to the house.
The 18th century saw a migration of boughs to the dance floor where it hung in the middle of the room. Dancers passing under the bough hoped to steal or encourage a kiss. Single women found under the bough or a sprig of mistletoe were to be kissed. If they were not, they would not marry for a year. The same was true for men. Burning the bough on Twelfth Night – took all that silliness away.
If a couple in love exchanged a kiss under the mistletoe, it was a promise to marry. Another version predicted happiness and a long life. Today, kisses can be exchanged under the mistletoe any time during the holiday season.
Mistletoe bestowed life and fertility, a protection against poison, and an acted as an aphrodisiac. The Anglo-Saxons connected kissing under the mistletoe to the legend of Freya or Frigga in her role as Goddess of Love, Beauty and Fertility. She is the mother of Balder, the God of the Summer Sun. In a dream Balder saw his life end which would cause all life on earth to end. Freya in her fear went to the elements air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant asking for their assistance in keeping Balder safe. But Loki in his mischievousness knew one plant had not been asked, the mistletoe.
The mistletoe grows only above the ground. Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe then gave to the blind God of Winter, Hoder. He shot it striking Balder dead. The sky paled and all things in earth and heaven wept for the Sun God. For three days each element tried to bring Balder back to life. Freya restored her son and her tears turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant. In her joy, Freya kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree that who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall them, only a kiss, a token of love.
Mistletoe was present in many ancient and winter festivals. The Roman festival Saturnalia was a way to celebrate the Saturn, the God of Agriculture and Time. This festival evolved from a one-day celebration to a week. Under the Julian calendar the end date was December 25th, the winter solstice. This festival ended with gift giving. The timing, festivities and use of greenery have evolved into the Christmas season.
Pliny the Elder describes Saturnalia on the sixth day of the moon, the chief druid would climb a designated oak tree and use a golden sickle to cut boughs of mistletoe. The chief druid than gave branches to a youth who would spread the news of the New Year.
Mistletoe berries are white and important in fertility rites. The Greeks use mistletoe in marriage ceremonies. An evergreen plant, mistletoe is thought to take custody of the soul of its oak host in the winter. This behavior led to the belief that when mistletoe is removed the power of the oak would go with it and will give strength to the sprig hung over doorways as protection against thunder, lighting, and witchcraft.
Mistletoe is actually hemi-parasitic. In its youth it undergoes photosynthesis to survive. Once mature enough, mistletoe will completely survive on the host for its nutritional needs. As they grow, thick rounded masses of witches’ brooms can reach several feet and weigh 50 pounds or more.
Mistletoe as a species is over 30 million years old and their origins are unknown. An interesting plant found everywhere even the desert. There are over 1,000 species in the Order Santalaceae. Two Families Loranthaceae and Viscaceae. The genera Viscum and Nuytsia. Viscum and visco reference the sticky substance the berries emit so they can stay with the host and grow. The oldest plant can be found in Western Australia, called Nuytsia floribunda, the Christmas Tree with its showy orange flowers create a firestick image against the blue sky. Nuytsia floribunda belongs to the oldest lineage of mistletoe, long before they became shrubs or witches brooms. The stems are so soft, they can be peel in layers like an onion leading to the gift of being fire sensitive and an indicator of the condition of the ecosystem.
There are two types of mistletoe used in Christmas decorations. The European variety Viscum album with its yellow flowers. The North American native, Phoradendron flavescens found from New Jersey to Florida. Phoradendron is Greek for tree thief.
Australian research has found this tree thief to be a keystone species. Where present mistletoe aids into a larger diversity of animals and plants and a healthier ecosystem. The berries are a main food source for birds and nesting. The plant supports canopy development with its leaf litter supporting life on the forest floor.
Mistletoe as Medicine
The white berries of mistletoe are described as album. The berries and leaves are poisonous and yet have been used in homeopathic solutions for centuries. One of the names the Druids gave mistletoe is All Heal because it seemed to heal all aliments.
Mistletoe berries fall from the sky and were a gift as long as they did not touch the ground. The seeds were used to treat some forms of epilepsy, known as the falling sickness. To mimic the falling from the sky, arrows or rocks were used to make the berries fall.
The whole plant is being studied to treat cancer, immune system and female reproductive disorders. Please do your research before experimenting with mistletoe.
The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer, Wordsworth Editions, 1993 Longmans Dictionary of the English Language, Penguin Book Ltd, 1991 A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Christina Hole, Helicon Publishing Ltd, 1995 The White Goddess, Robert Graves, Faber and Faber, 1997