Mistletoe: Fact vs Folklore

Mistletoe, along with other evergreens such as holly, boxwood, and the Christmas tree is a plant associated with the Christmas season and a symbol of the rebirth that will come in the spring. More than any other plant we associate with the holiday it is generally only thought of during this time of year and then forgotten when the holiday season ends. When the decorations come down mistletoe fades from our consciousness but there are a lot of facts and folklore surrounding mistletoe that make it somewhat unique and quite interesting.

Mistletoe is a plant with origins that go back to ancient times. Stories that involve mistletoe are found in Norse and Roman myths and it was regarded as an aphrodisiac by Celtic tribes including the Druids. It was said to have supernatural powers by the Gauls and since it was rarely encountered it was treated with solemn rituals. For example, it is said that if warriors during a battle found themselves fighting under mistletoe they would peacefully put down their weapons for the rest of the day and resume their battle in the morning. Mistletoe was also hung above doorways to ward off evil and keep witches from visiting your home.

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe may date back to ancient Greece. Kissing under the mistletoe was part of marriage rites as it was believed to promote fertility but the tradition as we understand it probably dates back to 18th century England. During Christmas time a young woman standing under a ball of mistletoe could not refuse to be kissed. A kiss under the mistletoe had not only romantic overtures but also stood for friendship and goodwill. If a woman was not kissed under the mistletoe during Christmas it was said that she would remain unmarried in the next year. An English tradition that you may not be aware of states that if the mistletoe is not burned on the 12th night of Christmas that all of the men and women who kissed under it would never marry.

For all the glamour that mistletoe earns during the holidays, the reality is that it is actually a parasitic plant. It grows on branches or the trunk of trees and sends its roots into the tree itself to take up nutrients. There are actually two types of mistletoe. The one we most commonly associate with the holiday is native to North America and the other type is found in Europe and actually grows in the shape of a shrub and has small yellow flowers with white berries which are poisonous. The European variety is usually found growing on apple trees but it is also more rarely found growing on oak trees. Due to this rare occurrence mistletoe that was found growing on an oak tree was the type treated with great reverence by ancient cultures.

The folklore surrounding mistletoe is certainly a lot better than the facts but it does have an interesting story that you can share with your guests this year. 

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