Mistletoe science and folklore

Interesting folklore and facts about how mistletoe grows and how it became a holiday tradition.

Hanging mistletoe in doorways has become a popular holiday tradition. Photo by Morten Siebuhr, Flickr Creative Commons
Hanging mistletoe in doorways has become a popular holiday tradition. Photo by Morten Siebuhr, Flickr Creative Commons

Many of us think of mistletoe as a little twig with green leaves and white berries, tied with a red ribbon and hung in doorways during the holidays, where it is a popular tradition to stand under and receive a kiss. However, mistletoe has a long and much more interesting history.

Mistletoe, Phoradendron flavescens, is common in North America, but there are hundreds of species around the world. Mistletoe is also known as birdlime mistletoe, Herbe de la Croix, Mystyldene and Lignum Crucis. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant propagated by birds. Birds eat berries and then defecate on tree branches, and with some luck, the seeds germinate.

Mistletoe does not grow in the ground like most other plants; it derives all of its nutrients from its host tree. In early history, mistletoe was considered to be an outgrowth of the tree. It will grow on almost any deciduous tree, but really likes the soft bark of old apple trees. Mistletoe is an evergreen plant that grows 2-5 feet in diameter.

The following are interesting facts and folklore about mistletoe:

  • In ancient culture, mistletoe was used for its healing properties.
  • Greeks used it for everything from menstrual cramps to spleen disorders.
  • Ancient Greeks considered the plant an aphrodisiac.
  • Greeks also thought it could help ensure eternal life.
  • In Rome, it was used in a balm to ward off epilepsy and ulcers.
  • Celtic Druid used it to restore fertility to animals and people.
  • Mistletoe’s associations with fertility and vitality continued through the Middle Ages.
  • The Druids believed mistletoe provided protection from all evil, and that the oaks it was seen growing on were honored as well.
  • Druids also sent round youth with mistletoe branches to announce the entrance of the New Year.
  • Norsemen were allowed to steal a kiss from any woman caught standing under the mistletoe; refusing the kiss was considered bad luck.
  • Norsemen believed the mistletoe was a plant of peace; when enemies met under the mistletoe, they were obliged to stop fighting for at least a day.
  • Traditionally, a branch of mistletoe is hung over the doorway of one’s home for peace and good luck.
  • In England, young girls took a mistletoe leaf and put it under their pillows at night. They would then supposedly dream about a particular boy or man they wanted to marry someday. 
  • In the 18th century, mistletoe became associated with Christmas from the tradition of hanging mistletoe in one’s home to bring good luck and peace to those within the house.
  • Mistletoe is also hung around the New Year and the previous year’s mistletoe would be taken down. The new plant would then provide this luck throughout the year.

For more interesting things about mistletoe, see the following references:

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