The Dark Lore of Mistletoe
It wouldn’t be the holiday season without the appearance of some of our favorite yuletide flora. Mistletoe is one of these well-known and adored plants. It also has a pretty dark past — from an ancient symbol of fertility to somewhere to sneak a kiss; the plant also harbors a spooky side as a parasitic plant with a malevolent mythology.
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It’s believed that the beautiful golden bough that allowed the Greek hero Aeneas to travel into the underworld was Mistletoe.
Mistletoe played a central role in many Celtic rituals. During one specific ritual, Celtic priests known as Druids would climb up a sacred oak and remove mistletoe from the branches with a golden sickle.
After obtaining the plant, they would sacrifice two white bulls to the gods and brew an elixir with mistletoe, believing that it would cure infertility as well as act as an antidote to all known poisons.
Other cultures associate mistletoe with fertility because it’s one of the only plants that bear fruit in the chill of winter. In Austria, mistletoe was placed in couple’s beds to encourage good luck in conceiving a child.
In Japan, the Ainu would chop up the mistletoe and place it in their fields to ensure a healthy crop. Welsh farmers believed that a healthy crop of mistletoe was a good omen for next year’s yield.
In Christian tradition, it is believed that mistletoe was once a tree that furnished the wood of the cross where Jesus was crucified — the plant then withered and became a parasitic vine as punishment.
So, Why Do We Kiss Under Mistletoe?
It’s not known for sure why the custom of kissing under the mistletoe took off. One possibility comes from Norse mythology.
There was once a man named Odin who was married to a woman named Frigg. Together, they had a son named Baldur. Frigg loved Baldur very much and was distressed when she found out that it was prophesied that he would perish.
In desperation, Frigg visited all the plants and animals in the natural world and made them vow that they would never harm Baldur.
However, in haste, she failed to obtain a vow from one plant in particular — mistletoe.
The antagonist in the tale, Loki, learned of the oversight and made an arrow from mistletoe — he then set off to kill the otherwise invincible Baldur.
In some versions of the tale, he is resurrected, and Frigg, the goddess of love, said she would kiss anyone who passed beneath it to show it was a symbol of love –not hate.
In another tale, the hero of the Aeneid held this belief, too, as he brought a bough of what was thought to be mistletoe, the symbol of vitality, to the underworld.
The first modern reference to kissing your boo under the mistletoe comes from the song Two for One, published in 1784. Washington Irving is responsible for the popularization of kissing under the mistletoe in the United States.
Fast forward a century, and we come upon the British of the 18th and 19th centuries, who started to hang mistletoe in their homes to celebrate the coming of Christmas.
In Irving’s collection of essays, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, he wrote about Christmas traditions he observed in a cottage-core style home in the English countryside:
‘The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.’
That sounds like a lovely history, wouldn’t you agree? If we dig a bit deeper, history starts to sour.
A Parasitic Plant
Mistletoes are hemiparasitic and will obtain water, nutrients, and minerals from their host plants. They’re considered hemiparasitic because they are able to produce their own food — it seems as if they choose to feast on other plants’ hard labor.
Mistletoe is extremely well-evolved to prey upon and kill many species of trees. Mistletoe attacks 105 species of trees in the United States alone. It’s truly dark that a plant that can produce 98% of its own food destroys trees the way that mistletoe — but it cannot obtain water and nutrients except by way of the host plant.
Eating the berries of some species of the mistletoe plant can also lead to illness or, in some cases, death. Yet, the duality of mistletoe is shown in other species, as it’s used to treat a range of ailments, from leprosy to infertility, epilepsy, and even cancer.
Despite its dark side, mistletoe carries extreme ecological importance, so much so that it is considered a keystone species — a vital member of many forests that promotes biodiversity and plays a role in woodland renewal.
The next time you come across mistletoe, whether it be hanging above a threshold in your home or crawling up the trunk of a tree in your yard, think about mistletoe as the duality of light and dark.