Myth has it that mistletoe – a toxic parasite – underwent a PR promotion of epic proportions to turn it into the symbol of love and stolen kisses it has become today.
Most of us have heard of Thor from Norse mythology; that hammer wielding god of thunder, storms, trees and other things. Fewer have heard of his mother Frigg, who was gifted with the ability to see the future, or his younger brother Baldur.
Myth has it that Frigg had a vision that Baldur would be killed. Like most mothers, Frigg did not accept this lightly. Instead she roamed far and wide, refusing to rest until she had exacted a promise from each and every dangerous object on earth that they would never, ever, harm her son.
Baldur, emboldened by his loving mother’s relentless pact with all-things-lethal, enjoyed performing circus-like displays of his immortality by encouraging other gods to shoot arrows and darts at him.
Alas, Frigg had failed to consider the toxic properties of the mistletoe and so had failed to strike a bargain with the white-berried plant.
Loki-that incorrigible god of mischief-no doubt annoyed by Baldur’s popular death-defying performances, spotted her blunder and tricked Baldur’s blind twin brother Hod into killing Baldur with an arrow dipped in mistletoe.
Frigg’s tears turned into the snowy berries that you see on mistletoe today.
But all was not lost!
The gods-perhaps missing all the entertainment Baldur had provided- managed to negotiate Baldur’s release from Hel, the goddess of death. For her part, Frigg glossed over her mistake by declaring mistletoe to be henceforth a symbol of love, instead of a mockery of her oversight, and promised to kiss everyone that passed beneath it.
Later, Celtic druids portrayed mistletoe as a symbol of fertility due to its winter greenery. Growing, as it does, in the canopies of deciduous trees, the contrast of the green mistletoe in the dormant, barren trees made the plant appear very virile indeed.
As cultural customs mixed and mashed, the druids fertility claim wove its way into the Christmas custom of kissing beneath the mistletoe. In the 1800s it was customary for young men to pluck a white berry after each kiss. When the mistletoe had been stripped of berries, kissing privileges came to an end for another year.
While myths and traditions are fun to read about, mistletoe has some intriguing factual properties as well.
It really is poisonous to humans- especially the berries. It is also an opportunistic semi-parasite that draws nutrients from its host trees, which include apple, poplar, sycamore, ash and hawthorn. If the tree is unable to produce enough nutrients to feed both itself and the hitchhiking mistletoe, it can mean the kiss of doom for the tree.
The name Mistletoe finds it origins in combining the Anglo-Saxon word “mistel” meaning “dung” with “tan” for twig. Literally translated it means Dung-on-a-twig. The name is as much a nod to how it is propagated as it is for its crappy canopy-tripping, life-sucking ways.
Birds can freely eat the berries without consequence. The birds then pass the seeds in their excrement or “dung” and deposit it on the twigs of trees. The seeds then sink their roots into the tree. Voila! Dung on a twig.
This is mutually beneficial for both the mistletoe and the birds, as cultivating more mistletoe means the birds having more berries for winter food and so the cycle grows.
Some species of mistletoe are capable of self-seeding in the most dramatic fashion. They absorb water inside the berry until it swells to an incredible point of pressure, exploding with such force the seeds fly out at speeds of 50 km (30 miles) per hour, launching themselves up to 15 metres (50 feet) away!
Fortunately the mistletoe you buy at the holidays are incapable of such feats. But can you imagine the mayhem at parties if they could?!
And now you know more about mistletoe than you perhaps ever wanted! Happy Holidays to you and yours. Be kind. Share a kiss with a loved one beneath a ball of dung on a twig. Only maybe don’t call it that. And stay away from poisoned arrows and white berries and gods named Loki.