Long before exchanging a kiss under the mistletoe became a Christmas tradition, this curious plant was thought to possess magical and healing powers. European mistletoe is a partial parasite that has no roots and lives on the trunks and branches of host trees. Although it has evergreen leaves and can manufacture food through photosynthesis, it robs nutrients and water from its host by sending out flat-tip, rootlike extensions called “holdfasts” that tap into the tree through fissures in the bark.
In the Celtic language, mistletoe means “all heal.” Ancient Druid priests held this bushlike herb sacred; they harvested it in ritualistic ceremonies and used it in sacrifices celebrating the winter and summer solstices. Because mistletoe keeps its green color and persistent white berries into winter, it became a symbol of life and fertility. In the Middle Ages, mistletoe was hung over the doors of houses and stables to protect those inside from evil spirits. The Scandinavians believed that mistletoe was a symbol of peace: When enemies met under it they could throw down their weapons and declare a truce, and quarreling couples could kiss under it and make up. During the Christian era, mistletoe was brought into the home for decoration. The 18th-century English are credited with creating kissing balls adorned with mistletoe and ribbons. It was said that no young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe could refuse to be kissed. Nowadays, we know that mistletoe berries are poisonous, especially to children, so artificial berries adorn the sprigs sold for the holiday season.
These traditions came to North America with the settlers and were bestowed upon American mistletoe, commonly called Christmas mistletoe. Christmas mistletoe can be found on trees from New Jersey to Florida and west to Texas. Like its European cousin, it is a semiparasite that rarely kills host trees but may stunt them and slow their growth. Birds spread mistletoe from tree to tree by eating the white berries, which contain sticky seeds.
From the earliest times, mistletoe has been considered an aphrodisiac. Perhaps this is due in part to its kissing connection. In any event, kissing under the mistletoe is one tradition that we feel will be around for a berry long time.