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Under the Mistletoe

By Audrey Stallsmith

viscum album

A barren detested vale you see it is;
The trees, though summer, yet forlorn and lean,
Overcome with moss and baleful mistletoe.

William Shakespeare, Titus Adronicus

The mistletoe which decorates our Christmas celebrations did not always have such a merry reputation. A parasite, it grows on the branches of deciduous trees--and sometimes sucks the life out of them to maintain its own. The American variety, phoradendron, literally means "thief tree." The European type, viscum, is translated as "sticky."

Shakespeare called mistletoe "baleful" because of a belief that Christ's cross was constructed from its wood, cursing the plant to eternal dependency. In fact, it is sometimes known as herb of the cross as well as devil's fugue and mytldene.

Some think its name derives from mistl ("different") and tan ("twig"). Others believe that the first part of the name comes rather from the German mist ("dung"), since the plant was supposed to be propagated by bird droppings.

Mist was also the Dutch word for birdlime. The latter was a sticky substance made from mistletoe resin and smeared on branches to catch birds. That might be considered the rankest injustice, since birds--especially the missel thrush--are the primary distributors of the plant.

According to Scandanavian myth, Balder, god of light, suffered similar ingratitude from mistletoe. When he had a dream foretelling his death, his mother, Frigga, goddess of love, became alarmed. She won promises from all the elements, plants, and animals that they would not harm her son.

Balder's enemy, Loki, found a loophole, however. Frigga had forgotten the mistletoe, which does not sprout from fire, water, air, or earth. So Loki tricked Balder's blind brother, Hoder, god of darkness, into shooting a mistletoe arrow which brought down the god of light.

Although each of the elements tried to resurrect Balder, only his mother's tears succeeded in bringing him back to life. Those drops supposedly turned into white berries on the mistletoe. Overjoyed by her son's return, Frigga "reformed" the plant, and began the habit of kissing everyone who passed beneath it.

In Celtic tradition, mistletoe was one of the most magical of plants, known as All-Heal. The Druids threw a December celebration five days after a full moon, at which time they flocked to an oak-woods to gather the "sacred" herb. The mistletoe growing there was probably rare enough to seem enchanted, since the plant prefers softer-barked hosts like apple, ash, hawthorn, or linden trees.

Armed with a golden knife, the Arch-Druid climbed an oak to harvest the mistletoe, while his followers danced around the base of the tree, singing, "Hey derry down, down, down derry!" The plant was then divided amongst those present, who hung it over their doorways for protection during the new year. Mistletoe's lofty perch probably explains its meaning--"I surmount difficulties"--in the language of flowers.

The free-loading plant supposedly strengthened magic, prevented babies from being snatched by bad fairies, speeded healing, and bestowed good dreams. Swedes wore rings and knives fashioned from its wood to ward off sickness. Germans believed that a sprig carried into an old house would force the ghosts residing there to appear and answer questions. Enemies meeting each other under the mistletoe were required to throw down their arms, embrace, and declare a truce for a day.

In modern times it is usually friends and lovers who come together there. Every man who claims a kiss must present a berry to the lady as payment. When all the berries are gone, no more kisses are allowed!

The Europeans used mistletoe to treat convulsions, delirium, hysteria, neuralgia, and heart conditions. American Indians employed their variety as an external compress for headaches, and as a cure for high blood pressure, lung problems, epilepsy, and vomiting.

Although, in the proper doses, mistletoe does numb the nerves responsible for convulsions, it will actually cause those spasms itself if over-used. In fact, the "berries" included with mistletoe these days are often fake, to prevent such poisonings.

The plant which was transformed from a symbol of hatred to a symbol of love seems an apt tribute for the season. The One whose birth we celebrate succeeded, after all, in transforming the cross from a symbol of death to a symbol of life!

Viscum album image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.