In honor of the holiday season I tried to find something festive and yet a little creepy and stumbled onto some intriguing information about Mistletoe.
Mistletoe is parasitic and unable to complete its life cycle without an attachment to a host. The plant we know today as mistletoe has no roots of its own. What it does have is tiny extensions called holdfasts that grip onto the bark of the host plant. They also serve as a sort of an umbilical cord and suck the nutrients from the host.
Mistletoe seeds are coated with a sticky material called viscin. They are spread by birds and when they are excreted and dropped onto a branch, the viscin sticks to the wood and eventually hardens and attaches the seed to its new host.
Mistletoe species grow on a wide range of host trees, some of which experience side effects including reduced growth, stunting, and loss of infested outer branches. A heavy infestation may deform the host and can create a dense mass that resembles a broom or a bird’s nest and is called a Witch’s Broom.
Mistletoe has always been considered a magical, good luck plant. Lovers who kiss beneath it will have lasting happiness and carrying a sprig on your person will ensure good luck, protection and fertility. Hanging it in the home was supposed to protect it from disease, lightening, werewolves and having your children switched with faerie changelings.
Druid elders performed rituals in which they harvested mistletoe from oak trees with golden sickles. It was collected under a waxing moon phase and then fed to animals to guarantee their fertility. As part of the rite, a pair of white bulls were sacrificed, and if prayers were answered, prosperity would be visited upon the villages.
The Festival of Saturnalia is one of the most well-documented ancient Roman celebrations of the Winter Solstice. The week-long revelry included exchanging of gifts, lots of food and wine, dancing and music. Slaves got the week off work, courts were closed, and all kinds of debauchery took place. This festival honored Saturn, an agricultural god. To keep him happy, fertility rituals took place under the mistletoe. Today, we don’t quite go that far under our mistletoe, but it is one explanation for how the kissing tradition originated.
During medieval times mistletoe was again recognized for its medicinal properties and appears in several folk remedies. To ward off demons, twigs of mistletoe could be hung in bundles over a door. In some countries, springs were placed in the stable to protect livestock from local witches. Mistletoe was also known to rural people as the best cure for barren women; in fact, mistletoe seems to have been a cure-all for any problems with conception, because early societies were baffled by its method of propagation. In the Middle Ages, mistletoe wasn’t just thought of as an aphrodisiac of sorts, but as a tool to keep witches from their homes and barns. A sprig hung from a doorway would do just fine.
Throughout the Middle Ages, mistletoe was banned by the church because of its association with fertility and all of the fun debauchery that goes with that. As a substitute, holly was suggested. Even as late as the 20th century some churches did not allow people to wear mistletoe to services.
Mistletoe retained its lusty reputation, however. During the Victorian era, public displays of affection were largely frowned upon, but if you were standing under the mistletoe, you were going to get kissed.
Mistletoe was used in spells to attract love, for protection, for luck while hunting, for forgiveness and reconciliation, to increase sexual potency in men and to help conceive.
It can be burned to banish unwanted spirits, laid across the threshold of the bedroom to banish unpleasant dreams, hung in the home to attract love and drive away negative influences and carried as a general protective amulet. It’s wood is also useful for making wands and other ritual tools.
Pity that I didn’t learn about all of Mistletoe’s interesting properties until now or perhaps I might have been able to make good use of it in my novel, Devil’s Bait. I’ll see if I can’t find a place for it in the next one.
Thanks for joining me and I hope you have a wonderful Christmas. See you next year.