Botanically, Mistletoe is a particularly interesting plant, being a partial parasite. As such, it grows on the branches or trunk of a tree and sends out roots which penetrate the host and absorb the nutrients. Mistletoe is capable of growing independently since, like other plants, it is able to produce food by means of photosynthesis. Nevertheless, it is usually found growing as a parasitic plant.
Mistletoe comes in two varieties. That which is most commonly used as a Christmas decoration (Phoradendron flavescens) is native to North America and may be seen on trees from New Jersey to Florida. The second species (Viscum album) is European in origin. It is an evergreen shrub with thickly-clustered leaves and tiny, yellow flowers, which bloom in February and March. The sticky white fruit or berries of the Mistletoe are considered poisonous. It grows most often on apple trees, but may also grow on others...such as the lime, hawthorn, sycamore, poplar and fir. Occasionally, it can be found growing on the oak.
The common name of Mistletoe is derived from the old belief that the plant was propagated from bird droppings. This notion was related to the generally accepted principle of the time that life could spontaneously spring from dung. It was noted that Mistletoe frequently appeared on branches or twigs where birds had left their droppings. "Mistel" is the Anglo-Saxon word for "dung" and "tan" is the word for "twig." Thus, in a literal sense, Mistletoe means "dung-on-a-twig."
By the Sixteenth Century, botanists had discovered that the Mistletoe plant was actually spread by seeds which had either passed through the digestive tract of birds, or been deposited by birds sharpening their bills (to which the sticky berries had adhered) against the bark of trees. Traditions which began with European Mistletoe were transferred to the similar American variety by way of immigration and settlement of the New World.
From early times, Mistletoe has been regarded as one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants of European fable and folklore customs. The Greeks and other ancient civilizations believed that Mistletoe possessed mystical powers. The rare Oak Mistletoe was highly prized by the Germans and the Druids (ancient Celtic priests), who used it as a ceremonial plant. It was considered to be a bestower of life and fertility, as well as being a powerful ward against poison and an effective aphrodisiac. It has been used by North American Indians to cure measles and ease the pain of toothache and dog bites. Today, Mistletoe is still used for medicinal purposes, but only in skilled hands.
Since to the Celtic Druids, both the Oak and Mistletoe were sacred, if Mistletoe were found on an Oak, then it was believed to be twice as magical. The priests called it "All Heal" and held a grand ceremony at Mistletoe-cutting time. In the middle of Summer, dressed in long, white robes, the Druids would journey deep into the woods in search of the plant. Then, with a magnificent golden sickle, the Arch Druid (most powerful of the priests) would cut it down, taking great care to catch it in a white cloth in order to avoid contamination by contact with iron or the earth, which would diminish its potency. Afterward, issuing invitations to all the spirits of the forest, sacred rituals were held among the tall oak trees to honor the Celtic gods. Two white bulls would be sacrificed amid prayers that the recipients of the Mistletoe would prosper. Mistletoe was long regarded to be both a sexual symbol and the actual "soul" of the Oak. Gathered during the Winter Solstice as well as during MidSummer, the Celts often used it in a decorative fashion for their homes. Such is the origin of the modern tradition to use Mistletoe for the adorning of houses at Christmastime.
During the Middle Ages, branches of Mistletoe were suspended from ceilings to guard against evil spirits. In Europe, the plant was placed above doorways to houses and stables, in order to prevent witches from gaining entrance. It was also thought Oak Mistletoe had the ability to extinguish fire. This was probably associated with an earlier belief that Mistletoe would come to a tree struck by a flash of lightning. In some parts of England and Wales, farmers would give the Christmas bunch of Mistletoe to the first cow that calved in the New Year, which was believed to bring good luck to the entire herd, and Mistletoe placed in a baby's cradle would protect the child from faeries.
A sprig of Mistletoe carried or worn about the neck has been credited with many enigmatic capabilities...raise a terrible storm, bring in the fog, guarantee a safe journey, cure dreadful diseases, reduce the aches and pains of old age, grant protection from witchcraft and demons, and render poisons harmless. The Germans called this plant "Gut Hyl" and, despite its toxicity, used it in various potions as a universal remedy and fertility drug. The Norsemen believed it bestowed strength upon the athlete, the hunter and the swordsman and often named their weapons "Mistelsteinn" because of Mistletoe's presumed magical and mighty effects.
According to Norse mythology, Mistletoe was the means by which Balder the Bright, god of goodness, beauty and wisdom, met his tragic end. When Balder was born, his mother, Freya, goddess of love and beauty, obsessed with concerns for the safety of her son, created charms and drew promises from every creature, plant and object that they would do him no harm. Unfortunately, Freya neglected to extract such a promise from the innocent-looking Mistletoe. Knowing Balder to be immune from injury, the other gods, in sporting fashion, used him as a target for their weapons. However, the corrupt god, Loki, made a dart from the Mistletoe and persuaded Balder's blind brother, Hodr to take aim. The spear thrown by Hodr but guided by Loki, passed through Balder and struck him down. The death of Balder brought Winter into the world and caused Freya to weep so pitifully, that her tears transformed into the plant's white berries.
In one version of this tale, the gods restored Balder to life and Freya then declared that the Mistletoe must ever after bring love rather that death into the world. Everyone passing under the plant was enjoined to embrace, while Freya bestowed a kiss of gratitude upon them in memory of the resurrection of her beloved son. In another, less joyful version, the death of Balder became a turning point in the history of the Norse gods, heralding the coming of evil and destruction of the deities in the doom of Ragnarok.
In Scandinavia, Mistletoe was also once considered a plant of peace and harmony, under which foes could declare an armistice or quarreling spouses could kiss and make-up. Custom dictated that, should enemies happen to meet beneath Mistletoe while battling in the forest, all weapons must be put away and a truce declared until the following dawn. Although this would not put a total end to the fighting, at least there would be one day of tranquility in the forests every once in a while.
With the advent of the New Year, Mistletoe becomes the legendary Golden Bough. Its withered yellow leaves were believed to assist its owner in the search for buried treasure. According to the story written by Virgil, Aeneas, leader of the Trojan refugees, carried the Golden Bough into the Underworld to seek news of his future from his deceased father. Other legends state that slaves might win their freedom by touching the sacred branch.
Although its pagan associations have often caused Mistletoe to be banished from Christian festivities, it remains a popular Christmas symbol of love and eternal life. It has been called "Herbe de la Croix" and "Lignum Sanctae Crucis" ("Wood of the Sacred Cross") because it was believed to have been the tree which supplied the timber for the cross of Christ. For its part in the Crucifixion, Mistletoe was condemned to the life of a parasitic vine, in the same way the serpent was condemned to crawl upon its belly for its part in the fall of man. Some believe that an additional penance was required: that the Mistletoe was obliged to bestow good fortune and blessings upon everyone who walked beneath it from that time forward.
Like other evergreens, the Mistletoe is a symbol of immortality. Since it thrives in the trees rather than being rooted in the earth, it is considered to be representative of both the divine and the topsy-turvy. As a parasite, Mistletoe represents the feminine need for masculine protection and provision. Its white berries make this plant a lunar, female or fertility symbol. Diana (also known as Artemis), fertility goddess of the Ephesians, wore a crown of Mistletoe as an emblem of fertility and immortality.
Today, kissing under the Mistletoe is a popular Christmas custom. However, in observance of strict etiquette, one berry of the plant should be plucked off for each kiss. When the sprig runs out of berries, then there ought to be no more kissing. In some parts of England, the Christmas Mistletoe is burned on Twelfth Night, lest all the boys and girls who have kissed beneath it never marry, and any unwed lady who is not kissed under the Christmas Mistletoe is fated to remain single for yet another year.