Nothing quite says Yuletide love like a toxic, sensual hemi-parasite

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TWH – The romance with mistletoe is ancient. It was well known in pre-Christian Europe and throughout Asia, where the plant is distributed and survives cold winters easily while staying brilliantly green. For millennia, mistletoe has been recognized as a plant of powerful magick.

The website “Mistletoe Matters,” run by mistletoe expert Johnathan Briggs and advises on the management and of the plan in orchards and gardens, writes “With its white berries, distinctive branching pattern, perfectly-paired leaves and parasitic habit mistletoe, Viscum album, is one of our most distinctive and unusual plants. There are many other mistletoe species worldwide but ours is the true mistletoe of legend, with a long history in tradition and culture.”

Callimachus, a Greek from Cyrene (located in modern Libya) and writing in the Third Century BCE, wrote the herb was sacred to Apollo and, “Where’er the genial panacea falls, Health crowns the State, and safety guards the walls.” It was known to ancient Persians as well.

Saturnalia by Antoine Callet, 1783 (oil on Canvas.). Musée du Louvre, Paris

 

In the stories of Norse Religion, mistletoe is mentioned as Baldr’s weakness and subsequent instrument of demise. When asked is all things have sworn against harming Baldr, Frigg comments to a disguised Loki that “everything except the mistletoe. But the mistletoe is so small and innocent a thing that I felt it superfluous to ask it for an oath.”

Ancient Druids appeared to gather mistletoe in Midsummer, where its harvest was part of ceremonial duties and its use likely part of a magical and medical tradition. They apparently harvested the plant for its curative properties; and took great care doing so. Often called “All-Heal” in folklore, druids would climb a tree – particularly an oak, where it’s growth is rare – and cut with a sickle letting fall into a receptacle before it touched the ground.

Whether the story is true or not is unclear. Pliny the Elder is the source and his stories about ancient druids were prone to embellishment given his Roman background. He wrote in Natural history XVI,

We should not omit to mention the great admiration that the Gauls have for it as well. The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak …. Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon…. Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.

Pliny concocted the elements of the white-robed druids harvesting the scared plant, but the story was concretized in the 18th Century by William Stuckley, an Anglican cleric, physician, and English antiquarian, who convinced himself that ancient British druids were monotheists who learned their traditions from Biblical patriarchs. Stuckley would go on to call his fantasy of ancient druid religion and the founding ancestors for Israel, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “Patriarchal Christianity.” Stuckley’s imaginative use of Biblical mythology and concept of ancient Druidry, however, did spark a Romantic revival of interest in Druid culture and practice raising attention to the ancient use of mistletoe.

Mistletoe in Krčevina pri Vurbergu, Municipality of Ptuj, Slovenia by Doremo [ CC BY-SA 4.0]

Many believe that Mistletoe’s secular use as kissing prop comes from the 18th Century Victorian traditions, where it was the stuff of marriage proposals or at least monogamous commitments. It first appeared to have been a practice of the working class and later spread to middle- and upper- class celebrations of Yuletide.

But the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe has more ancient origins as well. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe appears to have started in ancient Greece. During the festival of Kronia, the predecessor of the Roman Saturnalia, where mistletoe’s association with vitality and fertility brought forth the kissing tradition. Under Rome, reconciliation between enemies also took place under the mistletoe.

Why mistletoe has such prominence is still unclear. The leathery leaves are beautifully symmetrical, the flowers bisexual – so far so good – and the opalescent berries poisonous filled with a gluey fluid can cause stomach pains and vomiting. In fact, it can even harm its host tree. Mistletoe Matters notes “Mistletoe is ‘only’ a hemi-parasite, with its own leaves and own photosynthesis. But it will have an impact on the host branch it is growing on. And if it grows on a high proportion of the branches of one tree it can compromise the whole tree, and may eventually (indirectly, over several decades) kill it.” While they add this is a fate avoided by larger trees, that hardly matters if you’re a small tree; and qualifying it as but a hemi-parasite does not add to the romance. All of this makes it sound more like an herb of war than flirtation.

Moreover, and adding to the plant’s sensual je ne sais quoi, mistletoe seeds are spread by bird poop made even stickier from the berry juice. Our avian friends may be unaffected by the plant’s toxicity, but the berry glue coats their feathers and intestines allowing the seeds to be deposited into treetops from either defecation or basic grooming. Adhesion, the product of evolutionary magic, guarantees success in the canopies.

American author Washington Irving wrote in Old Christmas: From the Sketch Book of Washington Irving, “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.”

Those poop-laden adhesive war berries have a come a long way. We’ll avoid the symbolism of clingy romantic partners as another aspect of mistletoe and look to its ancient presence in Pagan communities; and if you partake in the kissing tradition, we remind you, consent is always first.