Many myths and legends yearning to be true notoriously surround the history of mistletoe. Finding the complete truth will never be possible, but all of the theories make their own particular sense, with or without over-indulgence in holiday libations. First of all, the word; where did that come from? In the Celtic language, Mistletoe means "All Heal" and it has nothing to do with any kind of toes, either hammered, twinkled or otherwise. The ancient Celts believed Mistletoe possessed miraculous healing powers and held the soul of the host tree. Actually, mistletoe is hemiparasitical, a partial aerial parasite that lives high in the boughs of trees. It is not a full parasite, as it is capable of its own photosynthesis. It grows on the branches or trunk of a tree and emits a special kind of root system (haustoria) that penetrates into the tree and absorbs its nutrients.
The Roman, Pliny the Elder, referred to the Druid practice of cutting away the mistletoe from oak trees where it attached itself, using golden sickles and spreading white cloth on the ground under the tree to insure that the trimmings didnt touch the ground and thereby, lose their powers. This special ceremony in which two bulls were sacrificed, was conducted five days after the new moon following the winter solstice. Mistletoe retains its green color all year long. It is perhaps, this fact that mystified the ancient world and elevated its existence to a spiritual level. Evergreen was also a symbol of fertility, and mistletoe was hung over doorways to protect against evil (the evil of fertility?).
The Druids believed mistletoe to be one of the most potent herbal remedies, with the power to heal disease, ban evil spirits, render poisons harmless, enhance fertility, protect from witchcraft (not the Frank Sinatra kind), and bestow good luck and blessings. It was said to be so sacred that if two enemies met in the forest beneath a mistletoe, they would lay down their arms, exchange a friendly greeting and keep a truce until the following day. (No kissing was allowed though. That came later). Because of the Druids extensive use of mistletoe, early Christians banned its use in their churches in England. However, In the area near York, England, it has always remained in popular use during the holiday season, as it grows there in abundance on apple, lime poplar and hawthorn trees.
Kissing under the mistletoe was first associated with the ancient festival, Saturnalia, and later with primitive marriage rites. In the days of early Christianity, when it gained strength in the Celtic and Viking regions of Northern Europe, the ancient ways were condemned and pagan practices were abandoned by the newly converted. Mistletoe was one of the casualties, and for centuries was forbidden as a display on Christian altars. Eventually, through the Victorian custom of kissing under it as a sign of love and romance, mistletoe came to be regarded with respect and reverence.
The Vikings believed that the power of mistletoe was rooted in the myth of the resurrection of Balder, the god of the summer sun (nothing to do with having less hair than his neighbor has). As the story goes, Balder had a dream in which he died. His mother, Frigga, the goddess of love and beauty, was alarmed, as her sons death would mean the death of all life on earth. She went to all the elements, air, fire, water and earth as well as all the animals and plants and asked them to spare her son. But Balder had one enemy, Loki, the God of Evil, from whom his mother could not protect him.
Loki found one plant, mistletoe, that Frigga had overlooked and had Balder killed with an arrow poisoned by mistletoe. The earth was dark for three days and as the legend goes, the tears shed by Frigga turned into the white berries on the Mistletoe plant. In her joy at Balders resurrection, she reversed mistletoes poisonous reputation, kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew and issued a decree that should one ever pass beneath the Mistletoe, they should have a token kiss and in so doing, no harm would befall them.
The European mistletoe is a green shrub with small yellow flowers and white sticky berries, which are considered poisonous. It is commonly seen on apple but rarer on oak trees. The oak variety was greatly venerated and used as a ceremonial plant by the ancient Celts and Germans. From its earliest times, mistletoe has always been one of the most magical, sacred and mysterious plants of early European folklore. The mistletoe found in America are nasty little fellows and gals. Arceeuthoblum pusillum are fully parasitical, having no leaves of their own. As such, this dwarf mistletoe is even useless as a Christmas decoration.
Strictly speaking, kissing under the mistletoe was never supposed to get out of hand, even though it often nearly did. (I wonder what surveys were done to arrive at this conclusion?) To prevent abuses, the custom was defined as a man might steal a kiss under the hanging branch, but when he did, one berry was to be plucked from the plant and discarded. Once the berries were gone, the "charm" of the mistletoe branch was supposedly spent. During the 19th century, abuses of the kissing custom were prevalent, according to a verse written called: "The Mistletoe Bough." It is surely no coincidence that in repressed Victorian times, the custom of "kissing abuse" came into full and unabashed bloom. (Probably a lot more happened or there would be no descendants of Victorian times today, right?)
Despite the mixed lore regarding the English mistletoe plant, the sale of it has evolved into a profitable business in England today. All through December mistletoe farmers carefully cut boughs, leaving some bunches behind to ensure a crop the following year. It is mostly birds, however, who propagate the mistletoe and many farmers refer to themselves as amateurs and the birds as professionals when it comes to the mistletoe crop
Each year many Druid followers come to celebrate the winter solstice in fields brimming with mistletoe in the orchards of Hertferdshire. Legends still abound, and one of them tells us that a sprig of mistletoe placed over a babys cradle will insure that the child will never be kidnapped. Giving a sprig to the first cow born after New Years is said to protect the entire herd. Sacred associations and legends endure and when the mistletoe is cultivated and ready for sale at the end of November, farmers and gypsies gather at auctions in the towns of the Midlands to sell their special, sacred wares.
So there it is; the story and the legend, and neer the two can be separated. But then why should they be? The power of fascination and mystery is far more important. So buy some mistletoe in a reputable place and hang it somewhere that isnt; at least in a place you are sure to get kissed. If you pick the right store, it shouldnt cost anywhere near an arm and a leg, a toe or any other body part!
Happy Mistletoe, Kissing and Much Love to all This Holiday Season!
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