Under the Mistletoe
Christmas is the perfect excuse to catch up with old friends, and on Tuesday I found myself in a tearoom in Sussex with my friend Eleanor, slurping hot tea while a monsoon raged outside. Before leaving, I bought us both a sprig of local mistletoe, and hung mine above the fireplace when I arrived home. I’m not one to follow tradition for the sake of it, but I love learning about the ancient beliefs that have shaped our society, and as a lover of fresh greenery over plastic decorations, a sprig of mistletoe is right up my street.
The species of mistletoe found in Britain is Viscus album, lending its name to the mistle thrush (Turdus viscivorus), who loves eating the berries of mistletoe, holly and yew through winter. Blackcaps also eat the skin and pulp of the white berry, but discard the sticky seed by wiping their beaks against the bark of the tree, enabling the seed to germinate.
This is the coolest part of the plant - it’s a hemiparasite species, which means it survives by living on and parasitising other plants. A root emerges from the germinated seed and grows along the branch surface using a process called thigmotropism. When it encounters an indentation in the bark, the root produces a swelling called a holdfast and secretes a cement-like substance which binds the holdfast to the bark. From here, the mistletoe grows, as if from nowhere, into an orb-like formation of leaves and berries - these are easy to spot among bare winter branches.
Do mistletoe plants damage their hosts? It would seem so, but mistletoes actually photosynthesise their own carbon and only extract water from their hosts, and whatever mineral nutrients that water contains. In most cases, mistletoes are an important part of the ecosystem and cause no harm to the host tree as a whole, although evidence suggests the portion of a branch beyond the point of infection can become stunted or die prematurely.
In Greek mythology, Virgil’s poetic hero Aeneas was guided through a forest and down into hell using a ‘golden bough’ of mistletoe carried by two doves. When he arrived at the river Styx, he presented the bough to the ferryman and was immediately transported into the underworld.
The Roman author and naturalist Pliny wrote that mistletoe in winter contained the life of the oak after it lost its leaves the preceding autumn. For this reason, the mistletoe was thought to offer protection from injury or harm, and if it was cut from the oak it was possible to channel these powers for healing. If the sprig touched the ground, its powers would be lost forever.
Mistletoe has been documented in rural folklore since the Middle Ages, when it was traditionally cut, tied in bunches and hung at cottage doors to scare away passing witches and demons.
So where did the festive tradition of ‘kissing under the mistletoe’ come from? Nobody is entirely sure, but, like many Christmas traditions, it could have been kindled by the Victorians. In England, the tradition dictated that a man was entitled to kiss any woman who lingered under the mistletoe, and that bad luck would befall any woman who refused. As much as I love the idea of being forced to kiss lecherous men or face destitution, I much prefer the German alternative - that those who kiss under the mistletoe will share an enduring love for the rest of their days.