December 24, 2013

Mistletoe

December 24, 2013
Mistletoes are commonly known to be a part of Christmas decorations and custom of a kiss between those who find themselves underneath it, but have you stopped to think about the story behind it? Why do we kiss under it? How did this Christmas custom come about? What is it really made out of? What did it symbolize in the times before us?

Mistletoe (Phoradendron flavescens or Viscum album) is a parasitic plant that grows on trees, particularly trees like oak and apple. A parasite is a plant or animal that needs another plant or animal to survive, much like a parasite that causes illnesses in humans. As mistletoe grows on a tree and uses its roots to invade the bark, it allows the mistletoe to absorb the tree's nutrients. Sometimes, mistletoe can harm a tree and cause deformities in a tree's branches, but usually it doesn't kill its host. If the host dies, the mistletoe dies. However, if the mistletoe gets too large, it could kill the host tree. Mistletoe produces it's own food by photosynthesis.

A mistletoe not only contains leaves, but multi-colored berries as well. The berries are consumed by birds that eventually leave their droppings on a tree branch. The droppings contain seeds that sprout roots into the tree branch. Once planted into the tree bark, the plant begins to grow within six weeks, although it takes five years until it is in full bloom.


Why do people kiss under a mistletoe? The origin of the tradition is vague, but it may have derived from it's association to Freya or Frigga, (the goddess of love, beauty and fertility), or the ancient belief of it relating to fertility and love. Mistletoe is said to be a sexual symbol due to the color of it's berries that serves as an aphrodisiac, the "soul" from which it grows. One legend says that kissing underneath a mistletoe will bring good luck, but those neglecting the ritual will bring bad luck in romance and primitive marriage rites. Did you know that the correct etiquette when it comes to kissing under a mistletoe is for the male to remove a single berry from the plant above when he kisses the woman. The mistletoe is widely viewed as a symbol of love, but it also represents peace. That dove carrying a twig that symbolizes peace? That twig the dove is carrying is a mistletoe.

In ancient tales, enemies who encounter each other underneath the plant lay down their weapons, embrace and agree to a truce until the next day. This act of goodwill may be another possibility for why we kiss under mistletoe: abstaining from violence and exchange embraces which prompted the custom of kissing.

What do mistletoe's have to do with Christmas? During the Yule season, this plant were sold in the market and used for Christmas greenery. Yule Tide, anyone? Those in ancient times were so impressed by the plant that it became interwoven into beliefs, legends and myths. It was also important for it's pharmaceutical proprieties as well as it's role in folklore. Today, mistletoe is still very much used as decorations but seldom practiced. In France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year's Day: "Au gui l'An neuf" (Mistletoe for the New Year).


In the first century, the Iron Age, the priestly class also known as Druids in Britain believed that it can ward off the evil produced from witchcraft. They also believed that it can be used to perform miracles such as providing fertility (much like ancient Romans believed) and heal diseases. In a ceremony, the Druids would snip mistletoe's off the tree branch five days after the new moon following the winter solstice. That would be on Thursday the 26th if it was still going on in our time. Two white bulls would then be sacrificed, and the sprigs would be handed to people in belief to be protected from evil.

In cultures across pre-Christian Europe, mistletoe was believed to be a representation of male essence: romance, fertility and vitality, possibly due to a resemblance between the berries and semen. If you read Julius Caesar, it was common of women to participate in ceremonies where men waves mistletoe at women in hopes of helping their fertility in their time. Thus also representing the feminine need of male protection.

Vikings dating back to the eighth century had the power to raise humans from the dead, relating to the resurrection of Balder, the god of the summer sunOne French holds the reason the plant is poisonous is because they believed that it was grown from the same tree that was used as the cross that Jesus Christ was crucified on. In Europe today, namely Germany, it is popularly used for treating circulatory and respiratory system problem by herbalists concocting a mix of the plants leaves and twigs.

Eighteenth-century English credited it with a certain magical appeal as a kissing ball. At Christmas time, a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill. If the girl remained unkissed, she cannot expect not to marry the following year. In some parts of England, the Christmas mistletoe is burned on the twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry. Thus, if a couple in love exchanges a kiss under the mistletoe, it is interpreted as a promise to marry as well as a prediction of happiness and long life.


What does a mistletoe mean in werewolf myths? Not much can be found about it other than it being used to stop a werewolf in it's tracks or transform for they have an allergy to it. It may momentarily weaken or slow them down, but it won't kill them. It may not have the same volume of effect that Wolfsbane has, it is used to help stave off the werewolf in lycanthrope folklore.


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