When I was growing up, we had this piece of plastic mistletoe that my mother would get out every year and hang up in a doorway. The ladies always got a kiss from someone special at the annual Christmas party. It took us kids acquiring our own girl- and boyfriends to figure out what all that was about.
Mistletoe’s association with love probably came from the legend of the Viking god Balder, who dreamed he was going to die. His mother, Frigga, the Norse goddess of love and beauty, went to each of the earth’s elements – fire, water, air, plants and animals – and asked them not to harm Balder. However, one of Balder’s enemies found a loophole in Frigga’s request and tricked Balder’s blind brother into killing him with an arrow made of mistletoe.
For three days all of the elements tried to revive him with no success until Frigga’s tears turned the red berries of the mistletoe white and, in doing so, raised Balder from the dead. Frigga immediately began kissing everyone she could under the mistletoe in gratitude. She immediately deemed it the symbol of love.
Mistletoe has inspired many other myths and legends. In the first century, near the winter solstice, the ancient English Druids cut mistletoe from the tops of oak trees with a golden blade, blessed it and handed it out to ward off evil. Because of its association with the Druids, the early Christian church banned its use.
It was also thought to affect fertility and served as an aphrodisiac in early cultures across Europe. The sticky white sap of the berry was thought to have a sexual connotation, while the plant’s perceived ability to spontaneously grow from other plants created an aura as a magical plant with special powers.
Mistletoe is a parasitic evergreen shrub that grows on the branches of hardwood trees such as apple, ash and oak. Birds eat the seeds and then deposit them on other branches as they travel through the forest or wipe the sticky sap off their bills onto a convenient branch after a meal. The seeds germinate and send roots into the branch for support, water and, to a certain extent, food.
The mistletoes of the myths and legends are the European natives Viscum album with white berries and Phoradendron flavescens with red ones. American mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpum, also has white berries.
Christmas mistletoe should not be confused with the dwarf mistletoe we find in the forests of the Western U.S. Our region’s dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium spp.) is a parasitic cousin of the Christmas plant that grows on ponderosa, lodgepole, limber and pinion pine and Douglas fir instead of hardwood trees.
So just what is the proper etiquette for kissing under the mistletoe? The man must remove one berry from the sprig of mistletoe for each kiss given. When all the berries are gone, the kissing must stop. In addition, any unmarried woman not kissed under the mistletoe will remain single for another year.