What do Charles Dickens, the Celtic Druids, Virgil’s The Aeneid, and approximately 75 percent of Australia’s bird population have in common? Well, mistletoe, of course. And while many of us most readily associate the leafy, white-berried boughs with Christmas, kissing, and perhaps a certain Justin Bieber song, the plant is actually far more philosophically potent and symbolically profound than most of us might surmise. Here, a starter course on mistletoe and why it has more than earned its spot at your holiday gathering.
Once upon a time, there prospered a plant called mistletoe. The plant was quite the contradictory one, unable to make up its mind: poisonous in certain varieties—raw consumption could lead to sickness or even death—yet elixir-like in other strains. In fact, mistletoe has been revered in Europe for centuries due to its believed medicinal value and supposed alleviation of conditions such as arthritis, hypertension, epilepsy, and infertility. Amazingly enough, it is even being used today as an alternative therapy for cancer.
The plant also has a bit of a dark side—it performs a minimal amount of photosynthesis and instead is hemiparasitic, meaning it gets most, if not all, of its nutrients from another living plant. A tree, for instance, that is overrun with mistletoe will die. However, the ecological importance of mistletoe is so great that it has come to be understood as a “keystone species,” playing a hugely supportive role that positively affects biodiversity. Many bird species feed off of the berries produced by the plant and areas with greater mistletoe densities have been found to support a much larger spectrum of animal diversity.
Mistletoe retains its rich green color all winter long and its ability to bloom even in the depths of winter became symbolic of a token of “eternal life” and fertility. As early as the first century A.D., the Celts came to prize and honor mistletoe as a symbol of vitality and good health, incorporating it into religious ceremonies. The Druids initiated the custom of hanging it over their door around the winter solstice to protect against evil and bring good tide. Even before that, the tradition and reverence of mistletoe made waves with the Greeks and Romans as well, and its importance in human culture was further solidified by its integral part in Virgil’s The Golden Bough, part of the epic Aeneid. In Scandinavia, mistletoe took on a meaning of peace and reconciliation under which enemies should lay their troubles to the side for a truce, or spouses undergoing hardship could kiss and make up.
Mistletoe gained even more traction as the “kissing plant” among the serving class in 18th or 19th-century England as this tradition caught on. According to the rules of the day, any man was able to kiss any woman standing under the mistletoe. It was considered bad luck to refuse the kiss and good luck to accept. With each kiss, a berry would be plucked until there were none remaining. In 1820, Washington Irving wrote of mistletoe in Christmas Eve as contributing to the festive feel of the holiday “to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.” Shortly after, Charles Dickens made mention of the romantic herb again in The Pickwick Papers.
So whatever happened to the amorous tradition? It seems that mistletoe is more of a relic than a must-have at modern-day holiday parties. However, if there ever was something worthy of claiming back, it is the traditions that bring families and loved ones together. So, this year, whether it’s a simple kiss on the cheek shared among family and friends or something more intimate with a lover, indulge in a tradition worthy of the gods—one that has made its way down the lines of humanity from Virgil to Dickens, from B.C. to A.D. You can afford to take a risk or two, because perhaps the beauty of mistletoe is truly within what it allows us to do: shake the confines of social norm to the side in the name of something much more noble—love.