By Jeff Westover
Two words: parasite and dung.
One today can hardly believe the association of these two words with something so romantically quaint as mistletoe is now in our Christmas traditions. So let the reader beware. What follows may cause you to reconsider a symbol of the season so lovingly cherished by many.
Mistletoe, in a clinical definition, is a parasitic plant. It grows in the tops of oak trees and has roots that dig under the bark of its host, slowly sapping it of nutrients and life.
The common name of the plant comes from the ancient belief that mistletoe propagated from bird droppings. In ancient times it was a widely accepted principle that life could spring spontaneously from dung. “Mistel” is an Anglo Saxon word for “dung” and “tan” is the word for twig. Thus, the translation for the word today is the decidedly unromantic “dung-on-a-twig”.
Given the unique nature of it’s existence, mistletoe has long been associated with the magical and mysterious. It was thought to be a bestower of life, a promoter of fertility, a guard against poison and, appropriately, an aphrodisiac.
~ From Bad to Good ~
Viking beliefs of Mistletoe’s powers were rooted in the myth of the resurrection of Balder, the god of the summer sun. As the story goes, Balder had a dream in which he dies. The dream alarmed his mother, Frigga, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, for if Balder died, so too would all life on earth.
Frigga went to all the elements — air, fire, water and earth as well as all the animals and plants on earth and asked them to spare her son. Satisfied that she had secured the cooperation of all, Frigga assured Balder that he would live forever. But Balder had one enemy — Loki, God of Evil — and Loki found the one plant that Frigga had overlooked – mistletoe. Since mistletoe grows neither on or under the ground, Loki had what he needed to wreak havoc.
Loki made a poisoned arrow tip with the Mistletoe and tricked Balder’s blind brother, Hoder, into shooting the arrow and killing Balder. For three days, the earth grew dark and the skies poured rain. Each of the elements in turn, tried to bring Balder back to life, but none were successful save for Frigga, his loving mother.
Legend says that the tears she shed during those terrible three days turned into the white berries on the Mistletoe plant. In her joy at Balder’s resurrection, she reversed Mistletoe’s poisonous reputation, kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew and issued a decree that should one ever pass beneath the Mistletoe, they should have a token kiss and no harm would befall them.
~ A Merry Tradition ~
In the Middle Ages, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil sprits. It was placed over entrances to homes and doorways to stables to prevent witches from entering. It was even believed that mistletoe could extinguish fire.
In some areas of England, farmers would give the Christmas bunch of mistletoe to the first cow that calved in the New Year, thinking it would bring fertility and luck to the entire herd in the coming year.
Mistletoe has always been symbolic of peace and love. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses kiss and make-up. The Greek festival of Saturnalia featured kissing under the mistletoe and it was included as part of marriage rites in ancient times to bless a couple with fertility.
In some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe is burned on the night of the 12th Day of Christmas, lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry. And for those who wish to observe the correct etiquette: a man should pluck a berry when he kisses a woman under the mistletoe, and when the last berry is gone, there should be no more kissing!