Mistletoe, A Symbol of Christmas
by Ro Wauer
Christmas is the time of year that seems to pop up just when one is finally getting the Thanksgiving dinner fully digested. It is a Christian holiday that is so commercialized today that the original intent is all but lost to many Americans. And yet, two native symbols of the Christmas season have lasted over the years – the Christmas tree and mistletoe.
Mistletoe is full of life in winter when it seems that life for many plants is at its lowest ebb. Once gathered as a symbol of life and purity by the Druids of ancient Gaul, the mistletoe figures in legends of Germany and Scandinavia, and today is hung at Christmas as a promise of life and fertility. In many countries, a person caught standing beneath mistletoe must forfeit a kiss.
The plant belongs to the mistletoe family, Loranthacea, which contains about 500 species that occur on a wide variety of woody plants throughout the tropical and neotropical regions of the world. Partly parasitic, it derives part of its nourishment from its host plant. The rest of its food it 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 glutinous seeds of branches of trees.
In addition, mistletoe is utilized as the larval foodplant of at least one butterfly, the great purple hairstreak that flies during most of the warmer months. And in the Southwest, the phainopepla, a shiny black desert bird with a tall crest and red eyes, often nests within bunches of mistletoe.
For years, people regarded the waxen berries 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 pillows 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 evergreens, and is brought into households at Christmastime as a decoration and also to perpetuate the pleasant custom of kissing.