Most of us are familiar with the traditional mistletoe hanging around at Christmas time and all the kissing it has sparked. As much as I remember seeing mistletoe over the years, I don't remember getting kissed while standing under it; until the day I was kissed by my true love, that is. If there were others, I guess they just weren't very memorable. I certainly wasn't concerned about folklore and the stories that an unmarried woman not kissed under mistletoe would remain single for another year.
The proper way to kiss under mistletoe is to take one berry off for every kiss, until all the berries are gone and then no more kissing. This tradition has been around for centuries, and has made its way into many cultures.
In Greek tradition, exchanging kisses under mistletoe is part of a tradition of marital ceremonies; it's considered a promise to marry and includes a prediction of happiness and long life.
The ancient Celts believed mistletoe to have magical healing powers and used it as an antidote for poison, infertility, and to ward off evil spirits.
The Druids considered mistletoe sacred with miraculous powers to cure illnesses, serve as an antidote against poisons, ensure fertility and protect against the ill effects of witchcraft.
Mistletoe is also considered a symbol of peace and friendship in Christian folklore; believed to be a most sacred and magical plant used for protection.
In Scandinavia, mistletoe is still hung at Christmas time. It was used as an early version of the peace pipe; when enemies met under mistletoe in the forest, they would lay down their arms and observe a truce until the next day.
I find it curious how a parasite could become so interwoven into the fabric of traditions from so many cultures. Yet, some of the beliefs behind mistletoe lend credence to its sacred and magical past.
One reason for mistletoe's appeal was that it seemingly spontaniously appeared on branches high in the trees, when nothing else was green.
Being held in great reverence, the Druids would seek out mistletoe growing from the sacred oak tree, on the sixth night of the moon. Dressed in white robes, the Druids cut the oak mistletoe with a golden sickle and believed it possessed protective properties; keeping them safe from all evil and curing illness.
The ancient Roman "Golden Bough" used to protect the Trojan hero, Aeneus, on a dangerous trip into the underworld, was actually mistletoe on the branch of an oak tree.
As the Roman Empire crumbled and Christianity spread, a rumor began in France that the cross upon which Jesus died was made of mistletoe. As punishment for its involvement in the crucifixion, the plant was forbidden to grow out of the earth, and became a botanical parasite.
The botanical history of mistletoe is not nearly as romantic or mystical as the legends and folklore it imparts. This festive evergreen shrub is actually classified as a hemiparastic plant that relies on its host for food. This dioecious plant bears fruit on the female plants and is a parasite of woody angiosperms. They take water and nutrients from the trees they grow on, but also produce some chlorophyll and draw energy from the sun. Having no true roots, they produce specialized structures called haustoria which penetrate the host tissue.
There are hundreds of species of mistletoe which are divided into three genera:
North American Mistletoe, Phoradendron spp., the most common being; P. serotinum.
European Mistletoe, Viscum spp., the most common being; V. album.
Dwarf Mistletoe, Arceuthobium spp., with 42 species growing in North America and/or Central America, Africa, or Asia.
Mistletoe was also used as medicine at one time and was known for its ability to stimulate the immune system. As one of the ancient world's most knowlegable herbalists, Dioscorides found that mistletoe helped cure his patients of external tumors; today mistletoe is known to be toxic with poisonous berries. Ingesting mistletoe can cause severe stomach cramps and diarrhea, and in some cases it can be fatal.
The berries are, however, edible to many birds. The berries contain seeds that are covered with a sticky coating. After dining on the berries, birds will often wipe the sticky seeds off their beaks onto other branches of trees, helping spread the plant. The birds also spread the seeds by droppings, which is where the name was derived: mistel, the Anglo-Saxon word for dung, and tan, the word for twig; meaning dung on a twig.
The origin of kissing under mistletoe is vague but seems to trace back to ancient Scandinavia and the Nordic story of Frigga and her son Baldr. This is my favorite legend behind the mystical power of mistletoe:
Frigga was the Goddess of Love and her son Baldr, the God of the Summer Sun. Baldr had an ominous dream of his own untimely death. His mother, Frigga was frantic because if her son died, everything on earth would die. She took an oath from all things, including disease, poisons, all of the elements, objects and all living beings that none would harm her son. Thinking him invincible, the gods enjoyed themselves thereafter by using Baldr as a target for knife-throwing and archery. However, Loki, the God of mischief, who was a trickster and an enemy of Baldr, was aware that there was one plant that Frigga had overlooked. It grew on apple and oak trees and was known as Mistletoe. Thus, Loki made an arrow and placed a sprig of this plant at its tip. He then beguiled Hoder, the blind brother of Baldr and the God of Winter, and made him shoot this arrow at Baldr. Baldr immediately died and all living things were worried because the earth turned very cold, making life dreary.
For the next three days, every creature tried to bring Baldr back to life. Baldr was revived only by Frigga, with the help of mistletoe when her tears on the plant became pearly white berries and she blessed it such that anyone who stands under the mistletoe would never be harmed but instead be entitled to a kiss as a token of love.
I have a Loki of my own, he's a five month old GSD, that lives with our four other dogs and our cat. He's sitting beneath the mistletoe, ready to kiss anyone who comes to greet him. Loki is pretty special. I'm beginning to wonder if he has magical powers. He always seems to know what all the other animals are thinking and is the "Voice" around here, letting us know when any one or all of the animals need something. He's been the speaker of the house since he was only a few weeks old; howling loudly when one of the others needed outside, or was hungry. Now that he's bigger, he just comes to wake me several times a night; when I open my eyes, there he is, staring at me while talking. I don't dare close my eyes again, lest he start to howl. Even after the fifth time, I may say 'You again', but I drag myself up. Besides, he's always right, which saves on cleaning up messes later. I always listen to my magical Loki.
From all of us, Loki says "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!"
Photo Credits (designated by scrolling over each image):
Plantladylin, Dave, yardqueen1948 and Zanymuse (Graphics)
Golden bough and Viscum album courtesy of Wiki Creative Commons
Legends and lore from various online sources