Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Why Mistletoe is for lovers...

Posted by: Dani Harper, Author
Mistletoe berries are white when ripe
Image from
’Tis November, and the harvest is in, the leaves are gone from the trees, and the first snows are falling. But in the midst of the short, cold days, one plant is just now ripening…  

But you'll have to look UP to find it!

Mistletoe is unusual in the plant world because it doesn’t grow in the earth at all. Instead, it’s a semi-parasite that lives only in the branches of mature trees (and if you've ever gone hunting for it, you'll know it's usually very high up...). This strange plant not only remains green throughout the winter, but usually produces its ghostly white berries between October and DecemberThis makes November the perfect time to go for a walk in the woods and locate a mistletoe plant for holiday harvesting! 

There are 1,300 species of mistletoe worldwide, with three dozen native to the United States. The most common of them eventually develops into a woven mass of green stems that can reach five feet across and weigh up to 50 pounds! The tangled plants are sometimes referred to as witches’ brooms.

Although today we think of mistletoe as a Christmas decoration, mistletoe has a much longer history than Christmas itself.

The ancient Celts believed mistletoe to be a gift from the gods, associated with good fortune and great blessings. The Romans recorded that the Celts would harvest mistletoe from a tree after the winter solstice. A druid – a Celtic priest – used a golden sickle to cut the plant. Due to its sacred nature, the mistletoe must never come in contact with the ground and so a white cloth was held beneath the tree to catch it. Two white bulls were then sacrificed to honor the god who provided the mistletoe and to ask that the plant’s potency be increased.

Snow-covered mistletoe growing high in a birch tree.
Image from
The druids were said to be skilled in both herbs and magic, and the mistletoe was one of the most powerful plants in their arsenal. A symbol of immortality, mistletoe was believed to have protective powers against evil spirits and the ability to heal diseases. Although mistletoe is a poisonous plant itself, in skilled hands it was considered to be an antidote to all other poisons. It was also used to promote fertility in both animal and human – and occasionally even used in aphrodisiac potions. 

In fact, the mistletoe was so sacred that if enemies met in a forest and a mistletoe plant was spotted overhead, an automatic truce was declared until the following day. From this grew the practice of hanging mistletoe over the door, or suspending it from the ceiling as a symbol of peace and good will.

The Death of Baldr, by W.G. Collingwood. Note the spear of mistletoe!
Public Domain 
The Norse myth of Baldr added to the mistletoe tradition. The goddess, Frigga, was Baldr’s mother, and exacted a promise from every element, plant and animal, both on the earth and under the earth, not to harm Baldr. She forgot the mistletoe, which grows neither in the ground or on it. The other gods made a game of throwing things at the good-natured Baldr and laughing as they bounced off him harmlessly. Loki, prankster and god of evil, tricked the blind god, Hod, into throwing a spear made of mistletoe at Baldr, which killed him. 

Fortunately, Balder is eventually brought back to life. His mother is so overcome with joy that she reverses the reputation of the offensive mistletoe, declaring that those who passed beneath a mistletoe plant should have a token kiss and be kept safe from harm.

Image from
Centuries later, both Celtic and Viking traditions were condemned by early Christianity as pagan, and mistletoe was forbidden to be displayed within sight of the church. However, that didn’t stop people from hanging mistletoe in their homes and barns or from wearing sprigs of it to ward off disease and evil. Mistletoe became known as All-heal, and is still used in homeopathic medicine. In fact, it continues to be studied today as a possible treatment for cancer.

The plant’s original status as a symbol of peace and love, however, wasn’t revived until Victorian times. With it came the practice of kissing under the mistletoe. Interestingly, the practice began among the servant class and worked its way up until everyone was doing it! Mistletoe could be hung over a doorway or from the ceiling as a sprig or a bouquet, or in England it was often part of an elaborate "kissing bough". This was made by wrapping greenery, nuts, apples and ribbons around a large wire frame sphere and tying a large cluster of mistletoe below it (remember they had VERY high ceilings to accommodate such elaborate ornaments). 

The kisses could be stolen if someone happened to wander under mistletoe, and it considered bad luck to refuse a kiss. Being Victorian times, it was almost always the men initiating the kisses of course... In some circles it was said that couples who shared a kiss beneath this evergreen plant would have a happy marriage. 

In the United States, the tradition was recorded in 1820 by Washington Irving (author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow). He wrote, "The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas; and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases."­ 

One kiss, one berry. It's easy to see why young men often competed to hunt down the BIGGEST bunch of mistletoe for the party!



Bringing ancient faery legends into modern-day America...

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  1. I didnt know why mistletoe was hung or the reason for the kissing. Great article thanks X

    1. Thanks Heather! I had a lot of fun researching this one.


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