STATESIDE STORIES: The Legend of Mistletoe, Christmas Kisses!

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by Mary Foran

Christmas traditions are different in every country, and throughout the European Union.  A traditional American holiday has many elements to it: the decorated Christmas Tree topped by a star in the corner, the milk and cookies set out for Santa Claus on the chimney hearth, just waiting for him to slide down with presents in his big red bag for the children at midnight; then there is the little manger set to remember baby Jesus by and an angel to announce his birth.

The stockings are hung from the fireplace mantle for each member of the family for little snacks and presents, and for the adults in the family, there is a string of ivy and a sprig of mistletoe hanging from the top of the closest doorway. The tradition is that if you pass under the mistletoe, you are liable to be kissed, and will receive bad luck all year if you refuse!

The tradition is said to have started in Scandinavia, but mistletoe is quite a strange and widespread parasitic plant. It extracts water and nutrients from the host plant, which could be a shrub or a tree, often an oak.

Mistletoes are in the order of Santalales, and European mistletoe is of the species Viscum Album. It is the only species of the plant native to the British Isles and much of Europe.

A separate species, Viscum cruciatum, occurs in Southwestern Spain and Southern Portugal, as well as in Morocco, North Africa.

Mistletoe with berries (Viscum) is found in parts of Spain and Portugal, Morocco and even California

There is an eastern mistletoe native to North America called Phoradendron Leucarpum which belongs to a distant genus of the family Santalaceae. Viscum has been introduced to California.

The waxy, white berries range from 2 to 6, or even up to ten, with smooth-edged, evergreen leaves. “Mistil” is Old High German and Old Norse, and “tan”(twig) is an Old English word.

The largest family of mistletoe is Loranthaceae which has 73 genera and over 900 species; most are tropical or subtropical. Australia counts with 85.

While tradition dictates that mistletoe is an excuse for Romance, trees which host the little buggers show reduced growth, stunting, and with a heavy infestation of the parasitic plant, eventual death. Most mistletoe seeds are spread by birds.

Pre-Christian cultures regarded the white berries as a symbol of male fertility. The Celts saw mistletoe as “the semen of Taranis”. while ancient Greeks referred to mistletoe as “oak sperm”.

The Druids used the plant in its rituals and in Norse mythology, the evil Loki tricked the blind god Hodur into murdering his own twin brother Balder with an arrow made of mistletoe wood, the only plant to which Balder was vulnerable. In some versions of the story, mistletoe became a symbol of peace and friendship to compensate for its part in the murder.

Faux mistletoe and pinecones sold on eBay as “”Mistletoe & Pinecone Kissing Ball”

Throughout the Middle Ages, mistletoe was associated with fertility and vitality, and by the 18th century, it had become incorporated in Christmas festivities around the world. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe became popular among English servants in the late 18th century and the Victorian era. Once again, tradition said that a man was allowed to kiss any woman standing underneath the mistletoe, with bad luck for her if she refused. They went so far as to say that a berry had to be plucked for each stolen kiss until there were no more. It has been reported that some even died consuming the poisonous berries.

Nowadays, mistletoe is the flower emblem of the State of Oklahoma, and the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is not as widespread as it used to be, mainly because it is hard to find real mistletoe in the cities! Plastic imitation mistletoe is all that is left to us Romantics, who wouldn’t mind dallying under a doorway for a while!


Featured image/Jason Eppink, CC BY2.0. Partial facial blot-out supplied.
Viscum mistletoe/Schnobby, CC BY-SA3.0
Faux mistletoe and pinecone on eBay, Fair use