Facts, history about Christmas decoration
December 13, 2013
by Jean Knowles/Victoria County Master Gardener
Edited by Charla Borchers Leon/Victoria County Master Gardener
PHOTOS CONTRIBUTED BY DREAMSTIME.COM
Mistletoe is recognizable by its smooth-edged, oval evergreen leaves on a woody stem with waxy white berries in clusters of two to six.
Throughout history, balls or masses of mistletoe on trees were thought to resemble mystical images. The Druids called it "witches' broom," and the Navajo Indians referred to it as "baskets on high."
Mistletoe is easy to spot as a mass in a tree with its leaves green all yearlong after dormant trees have lost their leaves. It is known as a partial parasite in that it grows and thrives off hardwood tree branches, obtaining water and nutrients from the tree, but it remains green and is still able to produce its own food by photosynthesis.
Today's custom of kissing under the mistletoe during the holidays probably evolved from English and Scandinavian folklore and customs.
To most of us, mistletoe is usually considered a poisonous parasite or a Christmas decoration involved with light-hearted stealing of a kiss. With a history dating back centuries, today's mistletoe probably originated in Great Britain or other European countries and is usually spread by bird inhabitants that eat the fruits. Let's look at the facts and history.
There are more than 500 species of mistletoe, but the common American-grown one that we are familiar with is sometimes known as a partial parasite. As a parasitic plant, it grows on the branches of a tree and sends out roots into the tree to get water and nutrients. But because the leaves contain chlorophyll, it is able to produce its own food by photosynthesis.
Mistletoe is able to grow independently of a host, but the American mistletoe is most often found growing as a parasite on oak, elm, ash or other hardwood trees.
Mistletoe grows into masses of branching stems, which are home to birds and other animals. It is a source of food for some birds that then spread seeds to other branches and trees. Though the mistletoe does not actually kill the tree, if the tree is host to multiple masses, sufficiently weakens the host tree so that it is susceptible to other factors.
The white mistletoe berries are considered poisonous especially to small children and pets, cats in particular. The effects of ingestion of the berries include slowing and weakening of the heartbeat and narrowing of the blood vessels in the skeletal muscles as well as the skin. Some sources identify severe stomach cramping and diarrhea that can be fatal.
The Druids and ancient Greeks were the first reported to have used the European mistletoe for health benefits. The Druids used extracts from the berries to treat many types of medical conditions from alleviating headaches to barrenness in animals.
For centuries, mistletoe has been used in folk medicine as a digestive aid, heart tonic and sedative. It has been reported to be used for everything from bed-wetting to asthma and cancer to epilepsy.
History of customs
Pagans regarded mistletoe as a religious symbol that possessed magical properties as it was considered effective curing ailments, in bringing good luck and defending against witchcraft. It was also believed to inspire passion and increase fertility. The Druids used it in both mid-summer and winter solstice ceremonies.
In the Middle Ages, it was the belief that hanging branches of mistletoe from the ceiling protected homes as well as their inhabitants from evil spirits. In some parts of Europe, it was placed over doors of stables and barns to keep the witches out. Vikings believed mistletoe possessed the power of bringing the dead back to life. Romans used mistletoe to make their marriages lawful by kissing under the branch.
One Scandinavian legend says that after Balder, the god of peace, was killed with an arrow made of mistletoe, the goddess of love was given the mistletoe for keeping. It was then ordained that everyone who passed under it should receive a kiss to show that the branch had become an emblem of love rather than hate. This evolved into the belief that mistletoe was a plant of peace under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses could kiss and make up.
In 18th-century England, the "kissing ball" was developed with a folklore that included burning the ball on the 12th night to make certain that all those who kissed under it would not marry.
With magic, witches and fertile marriages traditions of the past, current Christmas custom involves hanging a brightly decorated branch of mistletoe over a door, and whoever is caught under it cannot refuse a kiss - a lot more fun than warding off witches.
May you be rewarded - or even surprised - with a kiss under the mistletoe from that special someone this holiday season.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on this column at VictoriaAdvocate.com.
• Vikings: Believed mistletoe had the power of bringing dead back to life.
• Romans: Made marriages lawful with a kiss under a tree with mistletoe.
• Druids: Associated mistletoe with fertility and vitality.
• Cornish tradition: Mistletoe was believed to be a fine tree from which the cross was made; eventually, it was condemned to be a parasite.
• Scandinavian custom: Young men had the privilege of kissing girls under the mistletoe but had to pluck a berry each time. Privilege was over when all berries were gone.