Since ancient time, mistletoe has been one of the most magical and mysterious plants of European folklore. The druids considered mistletoe to be a sacred plant and believed it had miraculous powers that could cure illnesses, serve as an antidote against poisons, ensure fertility, and protect against witchcraft. It was also believed that mistletoe was an aphrodisiac.
Mistletoe and smooching descends from the customs of several different cultures. A Greek tradition was that if a couple in love exchanged a kiss under the mistletoe, it is a promise to marry (uh, oh), as well as ensuring happiness and long life. In France, it was reserved for New Year’s Day: "Au gui l’an neuf"–Mistletoe for the New Year. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses could kiss and make up. Whenever enemies met under the mistletoe in the forest, they had to lay down their weapons and observe a truce until the next day.
Today’s custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses for the holidays is a survival of European traditions and the belief it would ward off evil spirits and prevent the entrance of witches. The common name for the plant is derived from the belief that mistletoe grew from bird droppings. Oh, dear. They figured since birds pooped in the trees and mistletoe grew there, it must be the bird poop. Once again, poor little feathered friends take the rap. "Mistel" is the Anglo-Saxon word for "dung", and "tan" is the word for "twig". So mistletoe actually means "dung on a twig". Whatever.
Mistletoe is actually a horrible parasite that left unchecked will eat your tree. At the first sign of it, you should remove it! It grows roots into your tree, too, so after you cut it off, wrap that part of the branch with black plastic to smother the root so it won’t grow back. I grew up in a neighborhood full of Modesto Ash trees, and my mom’s is the only one left now.
Careful with the little white berries that come with the mistletoe. It’s poison! Watch your feathered and furry housemates and human babies, too. To be extra safe, I’m sure you can find faux mistletoe at the craft stores during the holidays. Get a bunch of it and a styrofoam sphere and make a "kissing ball". Pull the sprigs apart and poke them into the styrofoam. Make it really dense so no styro is showing. Add a pretty ribbon and hang it in a doorway. If you’re using the fake stuff, hang it high enough so you can’t tell it’s fake. Be forewarned: witches scoff at faux mistletoe. If you use real mistletoe, go back and read the part about it being poison. And if you remove all the white, poison berries, you can instead embellish it with white hypericum berries or faux white berries from the craft store.
I have a giant mercury glass ornament that I bring out some years and attach small bits of mistletoe. Much easier, takes less time, I still get the mistletoe magic (and protection), and the mercury glass is SO festive.
So, let’s deck them halls with boughs of mistletoe and let the smooching begin!