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.