Morning Coffee: Mistletoe

ChristmasI’ve been busy decorating our home for Christmas and found myself wondering: why do we kiss beneath the mistletoe? When you think about it, it is a rather odd custom. Why mistletoe? Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that steals nutrients from the host and can harm some trees. Why not a more cheery and aromatic choice like a pine bough? So I went to my favorite source for “the history of…”, www.history.com, and this is what I found.

Like so many customs, the power of mistletoe goes back thousands of years to a time when it was used to cure anything from menstrual cramps to spleen disorders. Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, touted it as a balm against epilepsy, ulcers, and poisons. Mistletoe and romance goes back to the Celtic Druids of the 1st Century AD. Because mistletoe stays green year round the Druids believed it to be a symbol of vitality and used the plant to restore fertility in both humans and animals.

Mistletoe also played a role in Norse mythology. The god Odin’s son, Baldur, was prophesied to die. His mother, Frigg, the goddess of love, secured an oath from all the animals and plants not to harm her son. But she neglected the lowly mistletoe. The god Loki fashioned an arrow from the plant and used it to kill Baldur. An alternate ending to the story has the gods resurrecting Baldur. Overjoyed, Frigg then declared mistletoe to be a symbol of love and promised to kiss all who passed beneath it.

Mistletoe continued to be linked to fertility and vitality well into the Middle Ages. By the 18th Century it had become a part of Christmas celebrations. Scholars can’t agree on a reason for this jump from sacred healing herb to holiday decoration, but it’s believed the tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe began with the English servants and then spread to the middle class. (Perhaps they were familiar with the Norse myth of Baldur and his mother Frigg; although that seems unlikely based on the limited education of the serving class.) Custom had it that men were allowed to kiss any woman caught standing beneath the mistletoe and refusing that kiss meant bad luck. A second version of the custom had the kissing couple pluck a single berry from the sprig for each kiss. They were to stop kissing when all the berries were gone.

I went to Wisconsin DNR’s website to see if mistletoe grows here in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the traditional “kissing” mistletoe with its large leaves and big white or red berries is not native to our state. You can, however, find the eastern dwarf mistletoe, a small and not very showy shrub not at all what you think of when you think mistletoe. It grows to a height of only a couple centimeters, making it the state’s tiniest shrub, and grows predominantly in the swamps of northern Wisconsin. You can learn more about it at http://dnr.wi.gov/wnrmag/2009/12/mistletoe.htm.

 

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