In his short story “Christmas Eve,” Washington Irving wrote, “The mistletoe is still hung up in farmhouses 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.”
While the custom of removing the berries may be forgotten, the tradition of stealing a kiss remains widely accepted. But what are mistletoes?
Mistletoes are flowering plants that grow on the branches of host trees and shrubs, sending out roots that tap into their hosts’ vascular systems, which they then rely on for water, minerals and carbohydrates. The word mistletoe translates from its Anglo-Saxon origin as dung on a twig, derived from the ancient belief that the plants grew from bird droppings. Actually, they grow from seeds found in bird droppings.
In the wild, the two varieties most often hung at Christmas both parasitize deciduous trees. The plant originally named mistletoe, Viscum album, is a green shrub native to much of Europe and parts of Asia that produces small, yellow flowers and white, sticky berries, considered poisonous.
Phoradendron flavescens, or P. leucarpum, referred to as leafy mistletoe, is a North American native, very similar in appearance to its European cousin. It ranges across much of the Eastern U.S. but can be found in some midwestern and southwestern states. It does not grow as far north as New York.
There is a mistletoe that does grow in our region, however, Arceuthobium pusillum. Known as eastern dwarf mistletoe because of its lack of leaves and reduced visible growth habit, it is a parasite of spruce and larch trees.
Considered a potentially serious pest, especially in stands of black spruce, dwarf mistletoe is capable of forcibly ejecting seeds coated with an extremely sticky substance called viscin, which acts like glue, allowing seeds projected onto nearby trees to stick to the limbs where they germinate, producing rootlets that easily penetrate the bark and wood tissue of younger branches.
The growing mistletoe alters hormone production within the infected hosts. Swelling eventually occurs leading to the formation of compact masses of brush-like branches called witch’s brooms. Several mistletoe plants may grow on a single broom, causing decline and ultimately killing the host.
So how did they come to be associated with smooching on Christmas?
Believing it to be sacred, Druids used mistletoe ritualistically to ensure fertility and as a sign of peace, friendship and goodwill. They also used it in medicine, believing it to be a cure for many illnesses and an antidote to poisons.
Mistletoe was also accepted as protection against witchcraft and evil spirits and worn around the neck or hung on or in homes. It may be that kissing beneath it stems from these pagan practices.
Or is the tradition rooted in Norse mythology to the story of Baldur the Good? Tormented by visions of her son’s death, Baldur’s mother, Frigga, goddess of love, beauty and destiny, exacted an oath of allegiance from all things, the plants, trees, birds, beasts, fire, water, iron and metals to protect her son. But she overlooked a small shrub that grew only on the branches of trees on the eastern slopes of Valhalla, mistletoe.
Upon learning this, the demonic trickster, Loki, extracted a poison from mistletoe and fashioned a dart. He had often watched as the young gods, knowing Baldur could not be hurt by stones, sticks or metal, would amuse themselves by throwing rocks, limbs, swords and axes at him knowing that none would find their mark.
Loki sought out Hodur, god of winter, darkness and night.
“Surely you would like to be part of this merriment,” Loki tempted. “Come! Throw this dart at Baldur. I will guide your hand.”
Hodur agreed and released the dart. It pierced Baldur’s flesh and he died.
The world was overcome with sadness. Every living thing wept. Frigga prayed that her son might be released from death and eventually Hel, the goddess of death, allowed him to return to the land of the living. Frigga was so grateful she commanded the mistletoe to produce white berries as a reminder of her tears. And she promised a kiss to all who passed under it.
Whatever the origin, as Christianity spread across Europe the customs were assimilated into the celebration of Christmas.
One last thought. If you have decorated with mistletoe this season, bear in mind that the berries are potentially poisonous and that mistletoe used as a Christmas decoration should be kept out of the reach of children and pets.
Richard L. Gast, Extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy, agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, 12953. Call 483-7403, fax 483-6214 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.