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Mistletoe has a mysterious history

John Zvirovski / The Sun A mistletoe hanging over a doorway awaits a couple to pass beneath it on Christmas Eve.

By John Zvirovsky

Sun Garden Editor

The holidays always have something for each one of us to reflect on from year to year. Whether it is the way you decorate your tree, the colors you choose or the food you prepare, there is something each person holds special in his or her own traditions. Some items allow great memories, some things are soothing to the soul, while others seem to hold a mysterious aura. Mistletoes have always been one of those plant products that have a mysterious and rich history.

From early childhood, I have memories of mistletoes hanging from doorways with pretty ribbons draping from each bunch. We all knew what it was there for; it was there for people to kiss beneath. As children, we got all jovial and jubilant as we saw someone pass under the bunch just to watch another race toward the doorway for the kiss.

As we grew older, history told us more and more about the true origins of this endearing ornament. The mistletoe drifts back into the biblical ages in time and remains in our ornamentation today. It was used by the early Druids, Greeks, English, Europeans, Scandinavians and came to North and South America in its symbolic quest for meaning. Some believed it was poisonous and dangerous to be around. Others believed it would scare off evil beings and witches from entering a place adorned with its sprigs. Some countries believed it to be symbolic of a peace offering in striving times. Today’s definition seems to follow more under the folklore of representing love and fertility. I have heard things can happen from drinking the water, but I have not heard about the dangers of kissing under the mistletoe.

The mistletoe is actually a parasitic plant that grows in the branches of trees. The white berries that are produced by this plant are usually eaten by birds and then deposited on a branch. Once this has taken place, the seed then adheres to the branch and roots firmly into place. The roots actually go underneath the tree’s bark, and it feeds from the nutrients of the tree for growth. These plants are not complete parasites though as they can actually produce their own roots systems and nutrients at the same time. A heavy infestation can prove to be fatal within the tree it is growing, but nature seems to have a way to evenly disperse this plant in low quantities making this an uncommon problem.

There are two types of mistletoe, the one from Europe, in which the folklore has developed, and the one from North America, which is commonly used for Christmas decorations. They grow mostly on the West Coast and along a thin line along the East Coast from New Jersey to Florida. The plant resembles an entangled ball of twigs in the tree limbs and has small leaves similar to that of the boxwood. They produce stems of small white berries that can be poisonous if consumed in large quantities, but I would not suggest eating them.

Whether the host tree has its summer leaves or has lost them during the winter months, the mistletoe remains evergreen and becomes quite apparent within the bare branches of the tree. These clumps have also become great havens for many types of birds, adding an ecological benefit to the surrounding animal communities.

Mistletoe can be found at your local florists and nurseries, both the live and artificial versions, for your personal use. Sometimes people prefer the artificial types to store and use from year to year. I find something exhilarating about having the live sprigs in the home, as it seems to add a little more mystery.

Most people will not be able to grow the mistletoe plant in their gardens, unless they live in the states where this plant thrives. However, many people during the holidays have often wondered where these sprigs evolved. Sometimes the most common items in our lives derive from assumed concepts over the actual facts. I think knowing a little more about the mistletoe seems to untangle some of the mysteries that have passed through the centuries.

In today’s ornamentation, it mostly symbolizes love and prosperity in which no harm will come to those who kiss beneath it. There have been times when the kissing tradition has gotten out of hand and thus some rules were created to limit this abuse. One guideline was for each couple who kissed beneath the mistletoe, one person was to pluck a single white berry from the bunch. Once all the berries were gone from the hanging mistletoe, the magic of future kisses had expired.

I don’t believe there are too many rules regarding the mistletoe traditions today or even if the practice is heavily used anymore. Either way, it is nice to hold onto some of these mysteries and for just a moment to experience a little magic with a loved one. After all, do we need an excuse to kiss the ones we love? If that is the case, then I think we should have the mistletoe hanging from our doorways throughout the year to keep that love alive. Find a sprig today and spread a little peace and prosperity along the way. Have a safe and happy new year and try hanging a little mistletoe in your doorways amid the celebrations.