Saturday, December 13, 2014


by Beth Overton

As Christmas draws near, I decided to find out how mistletoe, a poisonous parasite, came to be associated with a Christian holiday.

Mistletoe is a parasite. It has no roots and attaches itself to trees, where it grows. In Old English, the word mistle is another name for basil. In Anglo-Saxon, mistletoe means dung/twig because it was believed it came from bird droppings on twigs. Though some species of mistletoe are spread through bird droppings, many species are fertilized by insects. Although a heavy growth of mistletoe can kill a tree, it can also prove incredibly beneficial because the birds who feed on mistletoe carry seeds of the host tree far and wide. This promotes more plant growth and more animals; hence the idea that mistletoe promotes fertility.

One tradition attributes mistletoe's poisonous nature to its having grown on the tree that was used to make the cross on which Jesus was crucified. After the crucifixion, the mistletoe shriveled in shame.

Druids and Celts considered mistletoe an antidote to poison, though the berries from many varieties of mistletoe are deadly poisonous. Romans considered mistletoe good luck.

Based on the story of Balder's resurrection, Vikings believed mistletoe had the power to raise the dead. Balder was the son of Frigga, the Goddess of Love and Beauty. He told his mother about a dream he'd had that he was going to die. Frigga asked each element (earth, air, fire and water) to promise not to harm Balder. The trickster god Loki, who wanted Balder's dream to come true, realized that mistletoe had no roots and was, therefore, exempt from keeping Frigga's promise. Loki made a poisoned dart from mistletoe and tricked Balder's blind brother Hoder into shooting Balder, killing him.

All of the elements did their best to resurrect Balder, and after three days, it was Frigga's tears that caused the mistletoe's red berries to turn white. Balder rose from the dead and, out of gratitude, Frigga kissed anyone who walked under the mistletoe.

Another association with mistletoe is that first century Druids believed mistletoe promoted fertility (for animals as well as humans), healed diseases, and protected from witchcraft and storms. In ceremonies, Druids used special knives to cut mistletoe from oak trees for five days following the first new moon after the winter solstice. To keep the mistletoe from touching the ground, it was caught in white cloths. The ceremony included the sacrifice of two white bulls, and the Druid priests gave sprigs of mistletoe to the people to keep them safe from storms and evil spirits.

Thus, because mistletoe is associated with fertility and the Goddess of Love (Frigga), it is a symbol of affection. Kissing under the mistletoe replicates Frigga's actions after getting her son back. It is supposed to grant good luck to couples kissing beneath it--and bad luck for those who refuse to kiss. Married couples who kiss under the mistletoe will have a long and happy life together. Single women put a sprig under their pillow to dream of the man they will marry.

There is actually proper etiquette for mistletoe kissing. The man is supposed to remove one berry every time he kisses a woman under a sprig of mistletoe. When the berries are gone, there should be no more kisses. This could mean that the mistletoe has lost its effectiveness, or perhaps the young man has enjoyed one too many kisses!

In ancient times, when enemies met under a tree that had mistletoe growing on it, they put down their arms and embraced. They had a truce until the following day, which could have given many enemies time to get to know one another and stop old feuds.

The question I have now is whether plastic mistletoe is as effective as the real thing?

One word of warning: mistletoe is highly poisonous, so should be kept away from children and animals.

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