“Though mistletoe is used throughout the holiday season here in the United States, it is more often hung for New Year’s Eve parties.”
Mistletoe. If there’s one holiday plant that seems simple and straightforward, it’s this famous “kissing” decoration. Nothing could be further from the truth. Delving further, we must look at the history and folklore of the plant and its curious botany.To understand the folklore, it’s helpful to understand there are two species of mistletoe. Phoradendron flavescens, commonly used as mistletoe, is native to North America and grows as a hemiparasite on certain trees found in a line down the East from New Jersey to Florida, as well as in the West.
The other type of mistletoe, Viscum album, is of European origin. The European mistletoe is a green shrub with small, yellow flowers and white, sticky berries which are considered poisonous. It is commonly seen on apple trees and occasionally on oaks.
Like certain other parasitic plants, it grows on tree branches, seeking out nutrients there. Mistletoe is also capable of growing on its own, using photosynthesis to produce its own food. The mistletoe growing in trees is immediately identified by the large and mossy bird’s-nest style cones that dangle from tree branches.
The rarer oak mistletoe was an important religious component of the ancient Celtic Druids and Germans and later used as a ritual plant by early Europeans. The Greeks and earlier peoples ascribed mystical powers to mistletoe, in part because it stayed green during the barren winter months.
Mistletoe was long regarded by ancient peoples as a fertility symbol, and Celts thought it contained the “soul” of the oak. It was gathered at both the summer and winter solstices. The long-standing custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is said to be a survival of pre-Christian traditions.
Kissing under the mistletoe is said to have begun with the Greek winter festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites. The “power of the kiss” probably owes its origins to the long-standing belief that it could bring about fertility, due to its evergreen nature.
Though we now think of mistletoe only in terms of kissing and romance, Scandinavians considered mistletoe a plant of peace, a safe haven under which enemies could declare a truce.
It also reputedly had the power to help sparring spouses kiss and make up. In the 1700s, the English transferred the plant’s reputed powers to something called a kissing ball. At Christmastime, a young woman standing under such a kissing ball, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons and ornaments, invited kisses from those brave enough to join in. According to custom, such a kiss could mean a lasting love or perhaps a deep friendship.
To this day, those still observing the old rites in England burn the Christmas mistletoe on the 12th night, lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under the mistletoe never marry.
In France, the mistletoe custom was reserved for New Year’s Day: Au gui l’An neuf (translated as “mistletoe for the New Year”). Though mistletoe is used throughout the holiday season here in the United States, it is more often hung for New Year’s Eve parties.
This article was written by Erle Nickel an Oakland nurseryman, gardening writer and photographer. Read his blog at normsnursery.blogspot.com.