Using mistletoe in Christmas decorations is a survival of the Druid and other pre-Christian traditions. Mistletoe, a parasitic plant with white berries, has been one of the most sacred plants of European folklore. It was once considered a bestower of life and fertility. A good mistletoe crop foretold Welsh farmers a good crop for the upcoming season. Mistletoe was also thought to help individuals who had problems bearing children.
Mistletoe has long been a symbol with both magical powers and medical properties. Mistletoe from sacred oaks was especially precious to ancient Celtic Druids. It was gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices for indoor decoration. Mistletoe was so sacred to the Druids that if two enemies were to meet under it, they had to lay down their weapons and observe a truce until the following day.
There are many other varied traditions associated with mistletoe. It was used to ward off evil spirits and prevent the entrance of witches during the Middle Ages. It was thought to bring good luck to the entire heard of cattle when given to the first cow that calved in the New Year. At one time people thought mistletoe could extinguish fire. It was considered a protectant against poison (although the berries are considered poisonous themselves) and an aphrodisiac. It has been used as a treatment for pleurisy, gout, epilepsy, and rabies.
The name mistletoe came from a mistake made long ago. In ancient times it was observed that mistletoe would often arise on tree branches where birds had left droppings. This led to the belief that mistletoe was propagated from bird droppings. "Mistel" is the Ango-Saxon word for "dung" and "tan" is the word for "twig". Hence, mistletoe means "dung-on-a-twig". It was later found that mistletoe was propagated by seeds instead of spontaneously arising from dung.
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe began in England. It was believed that kissing under the mistletoe increased the possibility of marriage in the upcoming year. After every kiss, a berry was removed from the bunch and discarded. When the berries were gone, the kissing would stop. Needless to say, plentiful bunches were sought for holiday festivities.
This article originally appeared in the December 10, 1999 issue, p. 135.