Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Secrets of Mistletoe

Last weekend as I was decorating my house for the Christmas holidays, I was looking for just the right place to hang my fake mistletoe ball for maximum kisses and began to wonder about its place of tradition during the Christmas season. Being a reference librarian, the need to know sent me off to the stacks looking for holiday traditions, and this is some of what I found out.

We are all familiar with at least a portion of the mysterious mistletoe's story: namely, that a lot of kissing under the mistletoe has been going on for ages. Few, however, realize that mistletoe's botanical story earns it the classification of parasite. Fewer still are privy to the convoluted history behind the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.

The kissing under the mistletoe myth comes from Norse mythology. Baldur’s mother, Frigga, Goddess of Beauty and Love, went to all plants and animals asking them to protect her son and cause him no harm, since he was the God of the Summer Sun. She overlooked one, mistletoe. Loki, God of Evil, found this out and got another to kill Baldur with a spear laced with mistletoe. Baldur was eventually brought back to life. Frigga cried tears of little white berries, like the ones found on mistletoe. Out of admiration, Frigga vowed to kiss anyone who walked under the mistletoe, so beginning the kissing under the mistletoe myth.

Washington Irving, in Christmas Eve, relates the typical festivities surrounding the Twelve Days of Christmas, including kissing under the mistletoe. Irving continues his Christmas passage with:
We have conveniently forgotten the part about plucking the berries (which, incidentally, are poisonous), and then desisting from kissing under the mistletoe when the berries run out!
“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.”
At Christmas time, 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 to marry the following year. In some parts of England, the Christmas mistletoe is burned on the twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry. Whether we believe the myths or not, mistletoe always makes for fun and frolic at Christmas celebrations.

Along with the Christmas holly, laurel, rosemary, yews, boxwood bushes and, of course, the Christmas tree, mistletoe is an evergreen displayed during the Christmas season and symbolic of the eventual rebirth of vegetation that will occur in spring. But perhaps more than any other of the Christmas evergreens, it is a plant of which we are conscious only during the holidays. One day we're kissing under the mistletoe, and next day we've forgotten all about it (the plant, that is, not the kisses).

When the Christmas decorations come down, mistletoe fades from our minds for another year. Particularly in regions where the plant is not native (or is rare), most people do not even realize that mistletoe does not grow on the ground, but rather on trees as a parasitic shrub. That's right: as unromantic as it sounds, kissing under the mistletoe means embracing under a parasite. Most types of mistletoe are classified as hemi parasitical (i.e., partial parasites). They are not full parasites, since the plants are capable of photosynthesis. But these mistletoe plants are parasitic in the sense that they send a special kind of root system (called haustoria) down into their hosts, the trees upon which they grow, in order to extract nutrients from the trees.

Mistletoe’s popularity has not waned in present times, and its pretty leaves and berries are one of the most fun and endearing parts of our Christmas celebrations today.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating information! There are so many Christmas traditions that have an interesting history. Thanks, Marianne!