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 this plant's botanical story earns it the classification of "parasite." Fewer still are privy to the convoluted history behind the tradition of smooching beneath a sprig of the plant. And its literary history is a forgotten footnote for all but the most scholarly. Let's begin with a little taste of the latter:
"Here were kept up the old games of hoodman blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles, steal the white loaf, bob apple, and snap dragon; the Yule-clog and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe with its white berries hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids."
So Washington Irving, in Christmas Eve, relates the typical festivities surrounding the Twelve Days of Christmas, including kissing under the mistletoe (Washington Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent). Irving continues his Christmas passage with a footnote:
"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."
We moderns 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!
Along with the 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, receding into the mists of mythology, rituals and enigma. 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.
The variety common in Europe was imbued with religious significance by its ancient denizens. We find the source of "kissing under the mistletoe" in Celtic rituals and Norse mythology. In Gaul, the land of the Celts, for instance, the Druids considered it a sacred plant. It was believed to have medicinal qualities and mysterious supernatural powers. The following reflections from the Roman natural historian, Pliny the Elder is part of a longer Latin passage on the subject, dealing with a Druidic religious ritual:
"Here we must mention the reverence felt for this plant by the Gauls. The Druids -- for thusly are their priests named - hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, as long as that tree be an oak.... Mistletoe is very rarely encountered; but when they do find some, they gather it, in a solemn ritual....
"After preparing for a sacrifice and a feast under the oak, they hail the mistletoe as a cure-all and bring two white bulls there, whose horns have never been bound before. A priest dressed in a white robe climbs the oak and with a golden sickle cuts the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then they sacrifice the victims, begging the god, who gave them the mistletoe as a gift, to make it propitious for them. They believe that a potion prepared from mistletoe will make sterile animals fertile, and that the plant is an antidote for any poison. Such is the supernatural power with which peoples often invest even the most trifling things" (Natural History, XVI, 249-251; translation by David Beaulieu).
But what about the origin of kissing under the mistletoe? On Page 2 you'll find that the answer lies in Norse Mythology. You'll also read about mistletoe's intriguing botany, the investigation into its alleged cancer-curing properties, and the harm it causes to your trees ....