My mom and I were walking in our neighborhood yesterday and she pointed out mistletoe in the branch of a tree. It was this clump of green on a branch that had lost all its leaves for winter. I was confused because here I guess I always thought mistletoe was some kind of little bush like holly. Turns out, as mom explained, that mistletoe is a parasite and grows on branches of trees that become their hosts. I thought that was pretty interesting, but then it got me thinking how in the world mistletoe went from being a parasite to becoming a kiss-inducing Christmas staple.
The word mistletoe was actually “mistiltan” in Old English. You know, back when they used “ye” a lot. The word was actually derived from two Anglo-Saxon words:
“mistel” meaning dung
“tan” meaning twig
That’s right, friends. Mistletoe is poop on a stick. Basically, the idea here is that mistletoe can potentially run its way through a bird’s intestinal tract in a hurry and so they poop out the seed usually on the next tree they land on, hence poop on a stick. The seed then grows and although the mistletoe can produce some of its own food, it mostly feeds off the tree it grows on, which makes it a parasite. From what I read, it seems the only way to really get rid of the mistletoe is to prune away the branch of the tree that’s effected.
Mistletoe has a history of being used for all sorts of things. The Greeks used it to cure menstral cramps and treat spleen disorders. The Romans used it to treat epilepsy. Native Americans used it internally to induce abortions and externally to treat rheumatism. Europeans used to for everything from arthritis and high blood pressure to epilepsy and infertility…which is weird since the Native Americans used it for the opposite of infertility. In medieval times, it was even thought to ward off witches and demons, so sprigs were tied together and hung in doorways of homes and also in barns to protect the animals. Today in America, mistletoe has been studied to use for treating certain types of cancer.
But how did mistletoe end up being a Christmas decor staple?
Well, it seems that the first use of mistletoe as a decoration started with the Celtic Druids in 1 A.D. Because it’s an evergreen and can actually bloom in winter, the Druids saw it as sacred and oddly enough they believed it to be the genitals of the oak tree it grew on, so to stand under it in an embrace was thought to increase fertility. They also apparently used it to heal other illnesses, help stop nightmares, and even predict the future.
I also read of a story in Norse mythology where a prophecy had been issued that Baldur, the chief god Odin’s son, would die. Frigg, Baldur’s mom, did what any mom would do and tried to prevent his death, so she made agreements with all the animals and all the plants that they wouldn’t ever harm Baldur. However, Loki, the god of mischief, noticed that out of all the plants, Frigg left out mistletoe when she made her agreements. Loki, being the troublemaker he was, decided to shoot Baldur with an arrow made of mistletoe and killed him. So going forward, a kiss under the mistletoe was done in remembrance of Baldur.
Mistletoe was also apparently a decoration used during the Roman celebration, Saturnalia, which was a festival to the sun god, Saturn. Saturn represented sowing or seed and so since he was an agricultural god, it was thought that fertility rituals underneath the mistletoe would be pleasing to him since fertility related to seeds and growing things I guess. Thankfully, people only just kiss underneath it now. Shew.
I even read that as Christianity started to take over the Roman Empire, there was a whisper in France that the cross Jesus died on was made of mistletoe and so because of the awful part it played in the death of Christ, mistletoe was demoted to a parasitic plant and was forbidden to grow straight out of the earth ever again.
Interestingly, as mistletoe found its way into Christmas decor, it was said that in Victorian England, a girl refusing a kiss under the mistletoe could be detrimental to her social life. That refusal for her could mean no marriage proposals until at least the next year if ever and she ran the risk of becoming an old maid. Oh the horrors.
So there you have it. Now the next time you and your sweetheart are kissing underneath the poop-on-the-stick decoration, you know just where it came from!
Merry Christmas to you all!
Mistletoe Myths and Mysteries
How mistletoe became an icon of Christmas