Friday Fact: Imagining a Mistletoe Mission


I thought it an appropriate time of year to talk about mistletoe.  Down in eastern North Carolina, where I grew up, it was a Christmas tradition with a lot of folks to shoot mistletoe down from the tops of big trees (usually oaks), where it was growing.   If I remember correctly, we used shotguns, so it was an art to shoot it down cleanly without busting it up into unusable pieces.   Some people would hunt and shoot down great quantities of mistletoe to sell to florists and at farmer’s markets.

The derivation of the word “mistletoe” belies its romantic reputation.  It comes from two Anglo-Saxon words: “Mistel” from the Anglo-Saxon word for “dung” and “tan” from the word for “twig.”  Translated, mistletoe would be something like “dung on a twig.”  This stems from the fact that much of the mistletoe that grows in trees comes from seeds contained in bird poop that sticks to tree branches. 

Also belying its romantic reputation is the fact that mistletoe is a parasitic plant.  It sends a special root-system called haustoria into the tree branch to suck nutrients from the tree.  Sometimes it even kills the plant on which it’s growing.  But it’s not all bad. The berries  provide food for birds and other animals.  Mistletoe has also been studied in Europe as a possible treatment for cancer.

There are a number of theories about the origin of the custom of “kissing under the mistletoe.”   The Druids believed it to be a sacred plant, a panacea for all ills, including infertility.  Supposedly, the Druids would cut it down from an oak with a golden sickle (rather than a shotgun!), taking care not to let it touch the ground.  They believed that it lost its miraculous properties if it touched the earth.  In ancient Rome, mistletoe was regarded as a symbol of peace.  There are stories of enemies who, when meeting under trees bearing mistletoe, would lay down their arms and embrace. 

I like that idea better than kissing.  If only the Druids and Romans were right in their notion of mistletoe as a miraculous plant of peace!  We could go on a mistletoe mission to hang it everywhere, in all the strife-torn places of the world.  We could all do our part as mistletoe missionaries—to bring about a mistletoe miracle of peace on earth and goodwill among men.



7 Responses to “Friday Fact: Imagining a Mistletoe Mission”

  1. Shannon Hodgins Says:

    Oh Dear Lord, that was hilarious. I had absolutely no idea. I’m going to cut and paste that out with a picture of mistletoe in my Library for our holiday display. Shannon

  2. wesleyjeanne Says:

    Great Friday Fact, Beth! Very interesting. I knew mitletoe is parasitic but did not know that about the origin of the name. I also didn’t know that about the “lay down arms” part. I would happily join you in your mission!

  3. June Says:

    I didn’t know any of this – what wonderful info to have during the holiday season… You can bet I’ll be talking about it! About the “lay down arms” part…maybe that’s how kissing under it got started? Great FF!

  4. colleen Says:

    It fascinates me how someone starts doing something and it catches on to the masses and THEN gets passed down for centuries. We make everything up as we go along.

    I recently learned that the word “book” is related to “bark” because they were first made on bark and still are when you consider where paper comes from .

  5. sara Says:

    Cool! Good post. Thanks for the info!

  6. CountryDew Says:

    A good shooter will use a .22 rifle to keep from harming the mistletoe. It’s difficult to do but I’ve seen it done. Very nice entry – timely too!

  7. lucky pennies Says:

    An excellent post and a hilarious photo! I’ll never think romantically about mistletoe again.

    I’ve seen it in some of the trees around here on campus…wonder if anyone would mind if I shot it out? 😀

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