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What is the mystery behind mistletoe?

A clump of mistletoe hangs on a wall as decoration during the holidays. John Zvirovski / The Sun

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 we each hold special in our own journeys. Some items present a euphoric sense, some things are soothing to the soul, while others seem to hold an intense mystery that always make us wonder. The item of mystery for me, comes in the form of the mistletoe.

From early childhood there are memories of the mistletoe hanging from a doorway with pretty ribbons draping from the bunch. We all knew what it was there for; it was there to kiss people. As children, we got all giggly and jubilant as we saw someone pass under the bunch just to watch another race toward the doorway for the kiss. It was fun and it was intriguing, but at that stage in our lives we thought it was also gross. Of course, in today’s world, there is probably a tag hanging from it warning you of some contagious disease. Kiss at your own risk!

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 has been used by the early Druids, the Greeks, the English, the Europeans and the Scandinavians, and has come across to the Americas in its symbolic quest for meaning. Some believed it to be that of poison 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 times of strife. 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 root  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 not a common 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 on 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 become great havens for many types of birds also, adding an ecological benefit to the surrounding animal communities.

Mistletoe can be found at your local florists and nurseries, both in 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 (myself included) have often wondered where these sprigs during the holidays evolved. Sometimes the most common items in our lives derive from assumed concepts and 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 that of 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. It was said that for each couple who kissed beneath the mistletoe, one of the people 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 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 the love alive. Find a sprig today and spread a little peace and prosperity along the way!    

Happy New Year and all the best in 2019 for you all.