The long, storied history of mistletoe |

The long, storied history of mistletoe

Lauren Theodore

What is green, poisonous and appears almost everywhere during the holiday season?

No, it’s not leftover fruit cake. It’s the mistletoe hanging over the doorway.

We all know mistletoe as the little nuisance that forces us to smooch someone we’d rather not during the holidays, like the bearded relative or the child who had a crush on you in grammar school. You know, the one who chased you around the playground with lips puckered and a sprig in hand.

But mistletoe is also known as the plant that offers the chance to ignite sparks with that special someone – someone you may never have had the chance to kiss had it not been for the mistletoe dangling from the ceiling.

The origins of mistletoe lore and tradition are long and varied.

In Celtic language, mistletoe means “all-heal.” Legend has it that in fourth century B.C., white robed Druid priests cut mistletoe out of oak trees with a golden sickle and sacrificed two white bulls during prayers on the sixth night of the moon. The recipient of the mistletoe would prosper.

Celtic Druids thought mistletoe had magical healing properties that could ensure fertility, cure illnesses, serve as an antidote to poisons, protect against evil witchcraft, make humans and animals prolific and protect houses from ghosts. Those who were privileged to possess it were thought to be blessed with good luck. In wartime, enemies who came across a tree with mistletoe, observed a truce of goodwill until the following day.

Norse legend claims that mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, goddess of love. Her son Balder, the god of the summer sun, dreamt of death which startled Frigga. If Balder were to die, life on earth would end. She visited all the elements of earth to ensure no harm would reach her son, but Balder’s only enemy Loki, god of evil, found the one plant that grew neither on or below earth. The lowly mistletoe.

Loki provided Hoder, god of winter, with a mistletoe tipped arrow that Hoder used to strike Balder dead. Winter paled the sky while Frigga and the elements: air, water, fire and earth, spent three days attempting to revive Balder. It was Frigga’s love that finally brought her son back to life.

The tears for her son turned into the white berries on the mistletoe plant. She kissed all those who passed underneath it, which furthered the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.

Kissing beneath the mistletoe actually originated from the ancient Greek festival Saturnalia and with the Greeks’ early marriage rituals. Mistletoe bestowed fertility upon newlyweds because the dung it was thought to grow from, had “life-giving” power.

Even the word itself has an interesting, somewhat surprising history.

“Mistle” is the Anglo-Saxon word for “dung” and “tan” is the word for “twig.” Therefore, mistletoe means “dung-on-a-twig.” And the definition is historically accurate.

By the 16th century, English botanists attributed mistletoe growth in trees to birds. Birds ingested seeds which went through their digestive tracks and were deposited on the tree. Also, the sticky berries stuck to the beaks and spread even further when rubbed off onto branches.

There are two types of mistletoe. Phoradendron flavescens is the kind seen wrapped around portions of oak tree branches in El Dorado County and is typically used for Christmas decoration in North America. The other kind is Viscum album, and is found throughout Europe and Asia, except Scotland and Ireland.

The plant is an aerial parasite and has no roots of its own. It usually attaches itself to oak trees, and depletes the nutrients from the tree until the tree eventually dies. The mistletoe in El Dorado County is only partially parasitic. This has to do with its color. If the plant is green it can make some of its own food through photosynthesis.

Geri and Larry Hyder, owners of Indian Rock Tree Farm, sell mistletoe at their Christmas tree farm tucked in the hills of Camino. The Hyders find mistletoe growing in oak trees on their 33 acre farm. The couple bought the farm in 1962 and said the problem is getting the mistletoe out of the tree.

Equipment such as pole saws are needed to prune.

“A lot of people take a shotgun and shoot it down from the tree,” she said. “You either have to shoot it down or climb the tree, which can be difficult since oak trees grow to be so tall.”

The Hyder’s 7-year-old grandson, Dylan, was in charge of the mistletoe business at the farm this year, where he sold sprigs for 75 cents per bunch.

Dylan came to the farm on weekends from Sacramento to conduct business in front of his grandparent’s gift shop.

“My grandson sold it with a big grin on his face,” Geri said.

When Dylan couldn’t be there his 13-year-old brother Andrew filled in, Geri said.

Regardless of its parasitic nature, Larry Hyder said if a couple kisses underneath the mistletoe, they will be married and live happily ever after. The Hyders are well on their way. They recently celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary.

If you can believe it, there is even mistletoe etiquette. A man should pluck a berry when he kisses a woman beneath the mistletoe, and when the last berry is gone, there should be no more kissing.

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