Christmas is a holiday filled with age-old traditions. One popular winter tradition is kissing under the mistletoe. Have you ever thought about what exactly mistletoe is and how it became associated with Christmas?
Mistletoe is an interesting plant. It is considered a parasite because it grows on the branches and trunks of live trees. Mistletoe sends out roots that penetrate the conductive tissues underneath the tree bark and extract nutrients.
It is also known as a "hemiparasite" because mistletoe plants have the ability to produce their own food through photosynthesis.
According to Sara Williams of the University of Saskatchewan, mistletoe got its name from the Anglo-Saxons. They believed mistletoe was derived spontaneously from bird droppings on tree branches.
"Mistel" was the Anglo-Saxon word for "dung," and "tan" was the word for "twig." So "mistletoe" translated to "dung on a twig."
English scientists later discovered in the 16th century that mistletoe was actually spread by seeds in bird droppings.
There are two common types of mistletoe traditionally associated with Christmas. Our native mistletoe (Phoradendron) is indigenous to the United States and normally grows from West Virginia to Florida. The ancient lore behind mistletoe comes from a species found in Europe, Viscum album.
The European mistletoe grows as a small shrub with white, sticky berries which are toxic to humans. It was commonly found on apple trees in ancient times. Another species of mistletoe found in Europe was the oak mistletoe, which was similar to the American species. Oak mistletoe was considered sacred by the ancient Celts and Germanic tribes who used it in religious ceremonies.
Mistletoe was long believed to be an aphrodisiac, and symbol of fertility, and a shield against poisons. Celtic Druids would harvest mistletoe and sacrifice animals to their gods in hopes of receiving good fortune. It was commonly gathered by the ancient Druids and used to decorate houses during the winter solstice. In the Middle Ages, mistletoe was hung from ceilings in homes and barns to ward off witches and evil spirits.
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe began in ancient Greece, during the festival of Saturnalia. The Greeks also used it for marriage ceremonies. The Scandinavians considered mistletoe a plant of peace. Warring enemies would traditionally declare truces under it, and quarrelling spouses would kiss and make up under sprigs of mistletoe.
Like many of our Christmastime traditions, mistletoe has a romantic lore based on the rituals of our European ancestors. Northern European immigrants brought over these traditions to America, many of which we still enjoy in some way. Even though we change many of these ancient customs to meet our modern ways of thinking, we can still look back and appreciate the history behind them.