December 19, 2013

Wildlife Wednesday: Christmas Edition #2 - The Origin of Mistletoe

Picture Credit: Google Images
Every Christmas when I go to the tree lot and pick out my 7 foot Noble I always make sure to buy a small bunch of Mistletoe. I love to hang it in the doorways of my home and make my husband give me a kiss every time I am under it. This is one of my favorite little holiday traditions. Considering my love for Mistletoe I thought I would inform you all about the history of Mistletoe. For starters, one thing I never knew until now is that Mistletoe is actually a partial parasite, or a "hemiparasite". What that means is that Mistletoes roots penetrate into its host, soaking up nutrients. The host in this case is usually the branch or trunk of a Willow or Apple tree. Even though Mistletoe can live off of the tree it decides to inhabit it can also produce its own food through photosynthesis allowing it to grow well on its own; Hence the term “partial” parasite. Mistletoe is green in color and has little clusters of red berries with each sprig. Birds can eat mistletoe berries, but they’re highly toxic to humans. There are over 20 different species of mistletoe and approximately 20 species of mthem can be found on the endangered species list.
The name mistletoe comes from the Anglo Saxton words ‘mistei’ (which means dung), and ‘tan’ (which means twig). I guess you could translate Mistletoe into “dung on a Stick” but that kind of takes away from the romance. Speaking of romance you might wonder where the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe came from. There are many different stories about everything related to the origin of this tradition. The ancient Druids developed the tradition of hanging mistletoe in the house. They considered mistletoe to be a sacred plant with medicinal qualities and mysterious supernatural powers. They would use it to bring good luck to their homes and to ward off evil spirits.
Celtic druids believed that mistletoe contained the spirit of the tree in which it grew; this was the only part of the tree that stayed green all winter.
In ancient Scandinavia, if you were out in the woods and you happen to find yourself standing under this plant upon encountering a foe, you both had to lay down your arms until the following day. This ancient Scandinavian custom led to kissing under the mistletoe. This tradition was very similar to that of Norse myth. The story goes that Mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love and the mother of Balder, the god of the summer sun. Balder had a dream of death, which greatly alarmed his mother, for should he die, all life on earth would end. In an attempt to keep this from happening, Frigga went at once to air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant seeking a promise that no harm would come to her son. Balder now could not be hurt by anything on earth or under the earth. But Balder had one enemy, Loki, god of evil and he knew of one plant that Frigga had overlooked in her quest to keep her son safe. It grew neither on the earth nor under the earth, but on apple and oak trees. It was lowly mistletoe. So Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe, gave to the blind god of winter, Hoder, who shot it, striking Balder dead. The sky paled and all things in earth and heaven wept for the sun god. For three days each element tried to bring Balder back to life. Frigga, the goddess and his mother finally restored him. It is said the tears she shed for her son turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant and in her joy Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree that who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall them, only a kiss, a token of love.
Folklore surrounding this shrub continued over the centuries. It was believed that a sprig placed in a baby cradle would protect the child from goblins. Giving a sprig to the first cow calving after New Year would protect the entire herd. In 18th century, the exchange of kissing between a man and a woman was adopted as a promise to marry. Now, according to custom, if a woman or man is caught standing under the mistletoe, a woman or man may kiss him or her.


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