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SLOAN COLUMN: Kiss and Tell: All about mistletoe

on Monday, 20 December 2021. Posted in Columns, Local News

Bob Sloan.Editor

Editor’s Note: During the month of December, Editor Bob Sloan’s column will focus on the traditional plants and greenery associated with the holidays.

Have you ever received a kiss under a sprig of mistletoe? If not, then you have undoubtedly seen the tradition played out in the movies or on television. Mistletoe has even made its way into a number of classic holiday songs, among them “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.” Decorating with mistletoe may not be as well-known a holiday tradition as singing carols or stringing lights around the Christmas tree, but it has a long and interesting history. Here’s some of that history and a few interesting facts on “The Kissing Shrub.” What is Mistletoe? Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that produces small white berries and grows almost exclusively in trees. It finds its home like many seeds do – through bird droppings. As the seed begins to grow, the plant attaches itself to the “host” tree in order to steal water and the essential nutrients that it needs to survive. The Name: It’s derived from two Anglo Saxon words - “mistel,” meaning dung, and “tan,” meaning stick or branch. The plant was often mistaken for bird droppings, hence the name. The History: Experts generally believe that the use of mistletoe in ritual form started with the Celtic Druids around the first century. The plant became a sacred symbol of vivacity and fertility to the Druids after they saw it blooming in the trees during the harsh winters. It would later become a central focus of the Ritual of Oak and Mistletoe, a ceremony that led the Romans to call the Druids ‘barbarians.’ In the Norse culture, the mistletoe plant was a sign of love and peace. According to Norse mythology, Balder was the best loved of all the gods. His mother was Frigga, goddess of love and beauty. She loved her son so much that she wanted to make sure no harm would come to him. So she went through the world, securing promises from everything that sprang from the four elements - fire, water, air, and earth - that they would not harm her beloved Balder. Leave it to Loki, a sly, evil spirit, to find the loophole. The loophole was mistletoe. He made an arrow from its wood. To make the prank nastier, he took the arrow to Hoder, Balder’s brother, who was blind. Guiding Hoder’s hand, Loki directed the arrow at Balder’s heart, and he fell dead. Frigga's tears became the mistletoe's white berries. In the version of the myth with a happy ending, Balder is restored to life, and Frigga is so grateful that she reverses the reputation of the offending plant, making it a symbol of love and promising to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it. The Tradition: The kissing tradition as we know it appears to have started in 18th century England where it first became widely used as a Christmas decoration. The tradition spread quickly throughout the world. Beginning as a custom among the lower classes, it made its way to all classes, becoming a universal holiday ritual. The person who refuses a kiss under the mistletoe is said to be cursed with bad luck. One custom holds that a person is entitled to one kiss per berry. When the berries run out, no more kisses. Poisonous: Eating any part of the plant can cause drowsiness, blurred vision, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, weakness and seizures. The symptoms are caused by a poisonous ingredient called phoratoxin, which is found in all parts of the plant, including the berries, and is especially concentrated in the leaves. Eating the plant raw or drinking it in tea can cause poisoning. Cancer Treatment? Mistletoe extract has been used since ancient times to treat many ailments. In certain European countries, preparations made from European mistletoe are among the most prescribed drugs for patients with cancer. Animal studies have suggested that mistletoe may be useful in decreasing the side effects of standard anticancer therapy, such as chemotherapy and radiation, However, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved mistletoe as a treatment for cancer or any other medical condition. So the next time you’re feeling all romantic after getting a big smooch under the mistletoe, remember it all started with bird droppings, barbarians, and a Norse goddess. Merry Christmas! Contact Editor Bob Sloan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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