Mistletoe, A Symbol of Christmas
by Ro Wauer
While the Christmas tree and associated decorations, along with figures of Santa and his sleigh and reindeer, are undoubtedly the most recognized symbols of Christmas, the sometimes forgotten mistletoe is also a well-known symbol of the Holidays. Mistletoe, one of the true native symbols of the season, is full of life in winter, just when many of our plants are at their lowest ebb.
Mistletoe has a long standing wintertime tradition. It was once gathered as a symbol of life and purity by the Druids of ancient Gaul, and it figures in legends of Germany and Scandinavia. But today it is hung at Christmas as a promise of life and fertility. In many countries, a person standing beneath mistletoe must forfeit a kiss.
The plant belongs to the mistletoe family, Viscaceae, which contains about 500 species that occur on a wide variety of woody plants throughout the tropical and neotropical regions of the world. Texas, according to "The Checklist of The Vascular Plants of Texas" (Texas Agricultural Experiment Station), has but seven species. The one that is commonplace in South Texas is actually known as Christmas mistletoe, or scientifically as Phoradendron tomentosum.
Mistletoe is partly parasitic, deriving part of its nourishment from its host plant. The rest of its food is manufactured from the chlorophyll of its greenish yellow, leathery leaves. Tropical species may flower and fruit year-round, but more northern mistletoe plants flower in spring and produce semitransparent berries in the fall and winter; many are at their peak at about Christmastime. The fruits are eaten by birds that often spread the plant by wiping the sticky glutinous seeds on branches of trees and shrubs. In addition, the phainopepla, a bird of the American Southwest, builds its nests almost exclusively among mistletoe, and there also are a few butterflies, like the great purple hairstreak, and moths in which mistletoe serves as their larval foodplant.
For years people regarded the waxen mistletoe berry as a charm against epilepsy, nightmares, and witchcraft. It has been considered a good luck piece in many parts of the world, worn in the lapel or around the neck to keep diseases away, placed under the pillow to induce dreams or omens, laid upon the threshold to prevent nightmares, carried by women to cure infertility, and placed in fields to stimulate crop fertility.
Mistletoe was once forbidden in Christian churches because it was thought tainted with heathenism, but now it is a symbol of life, along with wintergreens. And it is brought into households at Christmastime as a decoration and also to perpetuate the pleasant custom of kissing.