Greenery and plants including holly, laurel, boxwood bushes, poinsettias, pine trees and mistletoe, play important roles in many of our holiday celebrations. Kissing under the mistletoe is one Christmastime’s most romantic – and most unusual - traditions. But what is mistletoe and how did it become such a fabled part of Christmas while being mostly ignored the rest of the year?
Unlike most other holiday flowers, mistletoe isn’t exactly known for its beauty. In fact, the infamous yuletide plant is an invasive shrub that grows from the dung of birds and extracts nutrients from trees. While that may not be a glowing introduction to mistletoe, it does begin to explain why this plant has held people’s fascination for so long.
While it is true that mistletoe is semi-parasitic and could eventually kill its host plant, it is generally not considered a serious enough threat, in most cases, to warrant control measures. In fact, there is evidence that the plant could have benefits for birds as well as humans.
Several studies – including one from Billabong Creek in New South Wales, Australia and another from central Mexico have shown a significant drop in the populations of birds and other species in areas where scientists removed mistletoe from the ecosystem while populations increased or stayed the same in areas with mistletoe.
Those findings, along with other studies suggest that mistletoe is a keystone species that not only plays a critical role in its ecosystem but may also provide some promising health benefits to humans. Doctors at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine are studying mistletoe’s effects on cancer patients as a way to relieve side effects of chemotherapy, and physicians in Europe are able to prescribe mistletoe to their patients.
How did it become a holiday tradition?
Long before the internet, neighbors and relatives frequently visited each other during the holidays for fellowship. Houses were kept tidy and decorated for the holidays in order to be ready for any guests or visitors, so the decorations needed to be hearty enough to last for several weeks. Although the origins of kissing under the mistletoe are unclear, it was likely chosen in part because it stays green all winter long without being rooted in soil.
The earliest documented cases of kissing under the mistletoe date back to 16th century England where it was a very popular custom at the time, but it likely started even earlier. One Norse myth claims people began kissing under the plant as a peace offering after the god Balder was killed with a mistletoe arrow. Early European were so enamored with mistletoe plants that they became interwoven into myths, legends, and religious beliefs.
Literature is filled with examples of different uses that range anywhere from preventing fires to scaring away demons and protecting livestock from witchcraft. Throughout the ages, mistletoe was also commonly tied to fertility, which may be where the tradition started. Washington Irving wrote that men commonly gave women a kiss for each berry hanging on the mistletoe above them – plucking one off for each kiss.
Despite mistletoe’s continued popularity in Christmas carols, songs, and tales, the plant is not nearly as common as it used to be even though nearly everyone has heard of it. And, unlike the jolly old elf, there is nothing seasonal about mistletoe - it does not disappear when the season is over, it is simply forgotten about for several months each year until it makes its appearance in doorways across the world next year.
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