The Story of Mistletoe - That Treasured Holiday Tradition


 Dung on a Twig

 Doesn't sound so romantic, does it?  But that's the literal translation of the word mistletoe.

 Let me explain.

Centuries ago peasants noticed that mistletoe took root on tree branches or twigs where birds had left their droppings.  "Mistal" is an Anglo-Saxon word that means "dung." "Tan" means twig.  Put the two together and you get Mistal-Tan or mistletoe or, as it translates,  "dung on a twig."

Those peasants were spot on, actually.   Mistletoe berries are tasty - for birds that is - but they're also poisonous, so you should not eat them yourself.  Anyway, you get the picture. Birds eat berries, berries are digested, seeds of the berries stick to the branches of trees and whola!  A new mistletoe plant is born. 

So how did the plant known as dung on a twig become the symbol of kissing and  romance its associated with now?

Well, that is an interesting story and has "roots" in many traditions.

Consider the Norse legend of Baldur  

Frigga, the Norse Goddess of marriage, childbirth and motherhood, (among others) and Odin, the god of the Norse, gave birth to Baldur - who was a god of truth and light.  So far, so good.

When Baldur was born, Frigga made each and every plant and animal promise they would never harm Baldur.  That's motherly love!  Unfortunately, she forgot to mention the plan to the mistletoe plant.  oops.

Enter Loki - the god of Norse myths. For reasons that are too mythological to explain here, Loki took the hard branch of mistletoe and made a spear.  Then he gave the spear to Baldur's brother, Hod.  Thing is, Hod was blind, so Loki helped him aim.  Oh those silly gods.

But the aim was good, Baldur was hit in the chest and died instantly.   But wait!  This is mythology and there was resurrection in the air!  Baldur could be revived if every last thing in the world, living and dead, wept for him.  This is important because, remember, Baldur was the god of truth and light - and its important to keep that sort of thing around!  

Ouch!  That's Mistletoe in my chest!

Ah, but Loki, the trickster and all around lousy guy, foiled the plan.  He disguised himself as a giantess (Why a giantess?  Well, there is an explanation - you can google it if you're curious).  The point is that Loki the giantess did not shed a tear.  While everything else dead and alive wept for Baldur, Loki did not so Baldur was never resurrected, which then marked the end of world.  Bummer.

Some ancient sources suggest that as a result of the legend of Baldur, mistletoe should bring love rather than death.  (starting to get more romantic...) and from then on any two people passing under mistletoe should exchange a kiss in the memory of Baldur.

The Druids

The Druids (they're the hooded Stonehenge guys) considered mistletoe a sacred plant.  Pliny the Elder a Roman natural historian  wrote that the druids believed mistletoe to have medicinal qualities and mysterious supernatural powers.  (Today some people still claim mistletoe can help fight cancer...(again, google it)

By the way, Pliny the Elder is a delicious beer made by the Russian River brew company - check it out at your local brew pub! 

  The Victorians

The Victorians also celebrated mistletoe - and may be the first to associate the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.  "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."  (Washington Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent).  I think another way of saying this is "dems the berries."

 After all that love and's a parasite!

What most people don't know is that the mistletoe plant is a parasite.  There are two kinds actually, a hemiparasitical (partial parasite) and a full parasitic type.  Berry seeds propagate on branches of trees from either bird droppings that contain the seeds or from seeds that have stuck to a birds beak or feathers. 

The plant takes root into the host tree and extracts nutrients from the tree.  For the most part the mistletoe will not kill the tree - although the full parasitic varieties can.

We here at Kisstletoe® like to say:  Kisstletoe® -  Saving Trees, Creating Kisses!   (we actually don't really say that ever).






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