Although mistletoe seems as much a part of the holidays as Santa Claus, the plant is equally shrouded in folklore and mystery.
Mistletoe appears in several forms, but is most recognizable as a broom of waxy green leaves with small berries, usually found high up in the branches of trees. Although a parasitic plant that initially lives off the tree in which it sprouts, scientists now believe that mistletoe provides important roosting and nesting for owls in North America and a variety of birds in Australia. Though the plant is considered poisonous to humans who ingest the berries, many animals depend upon the leaves and young shoots as part of their diet.
The Celtic Druids believed mistletoe to have magical and medicinal properties, since it seemed to appear from nowhere and flourish without a root system and apparent need for sustenance. The Druids believed that because the plant did not touch the earth, it was a gift directly from the sun.
In the 13th century, mistletoe appeared in Greek mythology as the Golden Bough of Aeneas. As the myth goes, Balder, the beloved god of truth and light, was killed by his blind brother, Hod, when trouble-maker Loki tricked him into shooting a single arrow made of mistletoe at Balder during a festival. Balder had been thought invincible, with even the axe of Thor being unable to harm him, but mistletoe was the Norse god’s only weakness.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that mistletoe seemed to become linked to Christmas in English-speaking Europe and North America. The plant is meant to be trimmed from a tree and hung in the house until the following Christmas Eve, protecting the house from lightning and fire. According to custom that appears to be Scandinavian in origin, a man and woman who meet under the mistletoe are required to kiss, plucking a berry each time. Once all of the berries are removed from the tree, the kissing privileges cease.
The link between this interesting plant and our current Christmas traditions may never be entirely clear, but finding yourself under a doorway hung with mistletoe with someone you care about might just be the best way to kick off the holidays.
So, go hang some mistletoe and nab yourself a Christmas kiss this season!