Origins of Mistletoe

Sarah Kanas, Writer

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What is the holiday where we come together to exchange gifts? The holiday we celebrate in a time of giving and charity with peace on Earth and goodwill toward men? The holiday we sing songs and listen to the story of a child born in the Bethlem? Christmas of course. This holiday is a time for being kind and generous to others and spending time with family and friends. We heard of the story of the Nativity from the Bible, the Grinch created by Dr. Seuss and Ebenezer Scrooge from “A Christmas Carol”. We even speak of Christmas trees, visiting Santa Claus and making sure our homes are decorated for the winter season. But there is one decoration we don’t talk about very often these days. That decoration is mistletoe.

Mistletoe is an obligate hemiparasitic plant that is attached to a host tree or a shrub by a haustorium. The lifestyle of the mistletoe led to the changes in metabolism and is referred to the species Viscum album. This plant included only species native to the British Isles and Europe as well as being broadened including other species of parasitic plants. Mistletoe can be found in other parts of the world and is classified in different genera and families. Two examples of mistletoe families are Misodendraceae and Loranthaceae (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mistletoe).

Prologue

The mistletoe grows on the branches or the trunk of a tree and sends the roots out to penetrate into the tree and take up the nutrients. When doing so, the plant grows on it’s own to produces its own food by photosynthesis. There are two types of mistletoe. The first type is the Phoradendron flavescens, which is commonly used as a Christmas decoration and the other is theViscum album; which originated in Europe and commonly seen on an apple, but seen rarely on oak trees. The Phoradendron flavescens is mistletoe that is native to North America and it grows as a parasite on trees from New Jersey to Florida and the Viscum album is a European mistletoe that is a green shrub with small yellow flowers and white sticky berries which are poisonous. Raer oak mistletoe is greatly venerated by the ancient Celts and Germans who used mistletoes as a ceremonial plant by the early Europeans.

Magic

Some people believe that mistletoe is one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants of European folklore and is considered to bestow life and fertility which is a protection against poison and aphrodisiac. With regards to magic, mistletoe was known as sacred oak especially to the ancient Celtic Druids. The oak mistletoe in that time was cut with a golden sickle on the sixth night of the moon by white-robed priests and with two white bulls, sacrificed amid prayers were known as the recipients of the mistletoe prosper. The ritual of cutting mistletoe from the oak symbolizes the emasculation of an old King by his successor. Thus, mistletoe was long regarded as both mid-summer and winter solstices and was even the custom of use to decorate houses at Christmas, survival of drid and other pre-Christian traditions. The Greeks also thought that mistletoe had mystical powers and became associated with many folklore customs. Later in the Middle ages, the branches of mistletoe hung from the ceilings to ward off evil spirits and were placed over the house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches in Europe. It is believed that the oak mistletoe could extinguish fires. This belief as associated with an earlier belief which states that mistletoe could come to the tree during a flash of lightning. Yet, the traditions beginning with the European mistletoe transfering to the similar AMerican plant with the process of immigration and settlement.

Kissing

Kissing under the mistletoe was first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia and was later with primitive marriage rites. However, this tradition was originated with two beliefs. The first belief is that mistletoe had the power to bestow fertility and the second belief is the dung from which the mistletoe would also possess the “life-giving” power. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace under which enemies would declare a truce or warring kiss and make-up. Later, the eighteenth-century English credited with a certain magical appeal known as the kissing ball. Around Christmas time, a lady would stand under the mistletoe, which is brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons and ornaments. With that, the lady cannot refuse to be kissed and the kiss could mean deep romance or a lasting friendship and goodwill. If the lady is unkissed, she cannot expect to marry the following year. In some parts of England, the mistletoe is burned on the twelfth night and all the boys and girls who kissed under it never marry. Yet, kissing under the mistletoe makes for fun and frolic at Christmas celebrations whatever we may believe it or night. If a couple in love exchanges a kiss, it is interrupted as a promise to marry as well as a prediction of happiness and long life. In France, a custom linked to mistletoe is reserved for New Year’s Day: “Au gui l’An neuf”. Today, kisses under the mistletoe are exchanged at any time during the holiday season.

Legend

In regards to any legend, mistletoe has supposedly been known as the center of folklore and was associated with the Goddess Frigga in one legend. In that legend, mistletoe was known as a sacred plant of Frigga, the goddess of love and the mother of Balder, the god of summer sun. Balder dreamed of death which alarmed his mother. However, Balder had one enemy by the name of Loki, the god of evil. Loki knew that Frigga overlooked mistletoe and kept her son safe. The mistletoe that existed in this legend is lowly mistletoe; which did not grown on Earth or under it, but only on apple trees and oak trees. In one of his schemes, Loki gave an arrow tip of mistletoe to Hoder, the blind god of winter and with it’s strike, Balder died. All things in Earth and in heaven wept as element tried to bring him back to life for three days. Finally, Balder was restored by Frigga whose tears turned her son into white berries on the mistletoe plant. With that, Frigga kisses everyone who passes beneath the tree on which the plant grew on. The legend ends with one degree that whoever stands under the humble mistletoe will have no harm bestowed to them. Only a kiss;token of love (http://www.theholidayspot.com/christmas/history/misletoe.htm).

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