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The Romance of Mistletoe

Mistletoe in a Blue Spruce Pine Tree Mention mistletoe and most people think of hanging a small, green branch over the doorway and sneaking a kiss beneath it. However, the white-berried greenery can be the kiss of death for the trees it lives on.

Mistletoe is a despicable parasite that clings to other living beings (mostly trees), sucking life out of them in order to insure their own survival.

Mistletoe, the common name for the Loranthaceae, a family of chiefly tropical hemiparasitic herbs and shrubs with leathery evergreen leaves and waxy white berries. They have green leaves, but they manufacture only part of the nutrients they require. Mistletoes are aerial hemiparasites, attaching themselves to their hosts by modified roots called haustoria, with which they absorb water and food from the host.

Oak, walnut, apple, and pine (shown above) trees are some of the most frequent hosts for mistletoe. Without the tree mistletoe would die.

Mistletoe got its name in medieval days when scientists believed it grew spontaneously from bird droppings on a tree branch. The red and white berries that grow on mistletoe are eaten by birds that eventually leave their droppings at their favorite hang-out spot -- on a tree branch.

"Mistel" is the Anglo-Saxon word for "dung," and "tan" is the word for "twig" -- misteltan is the Old English version of mistletoe. This name tells us that mistletoe is named after bird droppings on a branch. So, you could say that mistletoe means "dung-on-a-twig".

Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites. Mistletoe was believed to have the power of bestowing fertility, and the dung from which the mistletoe was thought to arise was also said to have "life-giving" power.

Studies suggest that mistletoe is not a major human health hazard if normal precautions are taken. We hang mistletoe high over the doorway to keep it out of the reach of children and pets and to make it easier to stand beneath to kiss our lover. While the white berries are probably not as poisonous as most people think, they are definitely in the "look-but-don't-eat category.

In a large study by the Pittsburgh Poison Control Center, mainly accidental human exposures to mistletoe in a seven-year period produced no fatalities and fewer than one percent resulted in life-threatening illness.

One myth in mistletoe's past comes from Britain. In the first century, the Druids in Britain believed that mistletoe could perform miracles, from providing fertility to humans and animals to healing diseases and protecting people from witchcraft. Medical research has found substances in mistletoe that can slow down tumour growth and these are being investigated - which suggests, there may be a scientific basis in this folklore myth.

Extracts of mistletoe have been shown to kill cancer cells in the laboratory and to stimulate the immune system. However, there is no evidence from well-designed clinical trials that mistletoe or any of its components are effective treatments for human cancer.

At Christmas time, according to tradition, a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill. If the girl remained unkissed, she cannot expect not to marry the following year. Whether we believe it or not, it always makes for fun and frolic at Christmas celebrations.
Couple kissing under the mistletoe

Several legends state that a kiss under the mistletoe, exchanged by a couple in love, is a promise to marry. In some countries, it is a prediction of happiness and longevity.

The correct mistletoe etiquette is for the man to remove one berry when he kisses a woman. When all the berries are gone, there is no more kissing underneath that plant.

Norsemen offer us a beautiful symbolic myth about mistletoe. The story goes that mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love and the mother of Balder, the god of the summer sun. Balder had a dream of death, which greatly alarmed his mother, for should he die, all life on earth would end. In an attempt to keep this from happening, Frigga went at once to air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant seeking a promise that no harm would come to her son.

Balder now could not be hurt by anything on earth or under the earth. But Balder had one enemy, Loki, god of evil and he knew of one plant that Frigga had overlooked in her quest to keep her son safe. It grew neither on the earth nor under the earth, but on apple and oak trees. It was lowly mistletoe. So Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe, gave to the blind god of winter, Hoder, who shot it, striking Balder dead.

The sky paled and all things in earth and heaven wept for the sun god. For three days each element tried to bring Balder back to life. Frigga, the goddess and his mother finally restored him. It is said the tears she shed for her son turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant and in her joy Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew.

The story ends with a decree that who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall them, only a kiss, a token of love.

Got the "holiday blues?" Read:  Rx for the "holiday blues".

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Follow the links at the bottom right of each page to complete our Christmas tour.

The Christmas & Holiday Book Shelf - Featuring a listing of more than 90 books with mistletoe in the title; both non-fiction and fiction.
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