Charles Dickens referred to it in "The Pickwick Papers." Washington Irving referred to it in "Christmas Eve." But as Christmas traditions go, kissing under a sprig of mistletoe may be among the strangest. The plant's origins are not romantic. The texture and appearance are not conventionally lovely. And what little is known of the custom, through the ages, tells a varied, sometimes bizarre story.
Certified nurseryman, Kent Douglas of Green View Cos. describes the plant: "Mistletoe is a parasitic evergreen plant that relies on other plants for its nutrients. Birds eat the berries; the seeds pass through the digestive tract, drop onto tree branches and send roots deep into the tree's vascular system.
"(Mistletoe) is hardy (lives through the winter) in subtropical zones of the United States such as the Carolinas, Florida and Tennessee, often on oak and hickory trees. Most true mistletoe that is sold is harvested in Oklahoma and Texas," says Douglas.
And if the parasite-host relationship doesn't sufficiently detract from its desirability as a holiday decoration, the berries are extremely poisonous to humans, adds Douglas. "Most of the time, when you see it in people's houses, you see the plastic version. Growing up as a kid, we had the plastic version, because if you use a live plant and (someone happens to) eat the berries, they can cause stomach cramps, diarrhea and for small children and pets, even death."
So how did the custom get started?
The article "Mistletoe," by master gardener Sara Williams, formerly a professor at University of Saskatchewan, offers a nice summary of mistletoe folklore.
Williams presents views of mistletoe as a "bestower of life and fertility, a protectant against poison and an aphrodisiac." It was used at the midsummer and winter solstices in pre-Christian traditions. Enemies in Scandinavia would also use it to declare a truce and warring spouses would use it to kiss and make up. "In some parts of England, the Christmas mistletoe is burned on the twelfth night, lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry," says Williams.
Botanical.com describes the Druid mistletoe cutting ceremony and some of the positive and negative effects of mistletoe when used medicinally. Yet one of the more common stories about the romantic origin of mistletoe is the slaying of Balder, Norse god of truth and light. During celebratory festivities, Balder was accidentally killed by a large branch of mistletoe, fashioned as a spear. According to the legend, when he was restored to life by the other gods, Balder's mother declared that mistletoe would forevermore be called a plant of love, not death.
In the book "Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas," author Ace Collins describes pre-Christian Greek and Celt views of mistletoe as sacred. Collins goes on to tell of many other faiths' view of mistletoe saying it is a noble gift representing life, hope and security. Ultimately, he describes it as a multi-faceted Christian symbol that represents God's undying love, life after death, God's purposes for humanity and much more.
All things considered, perhaps it's not a bad thing to skip over the name, which literally means, "dung on a twig," says active gardener, Williams. If you disregard the many strange stories about mistletoe, and simply enjoy the flirtation of a holiday kiss, invest in the good old' plastic version. Besides the fun, retro appeal, there's no chance someone will accidentally eat one of the berries and become sick!