"Mistletoe and Ivy will be the death of me," sighed the old oak-tree.
The use of mistletoe has faded in popularity as a yule time decoration, yet it may be the oldest of the holiday symbols. It held status of the sacred from the ancient Greeks, Norse, Druids, and Celtic peoples of Europe. The veneration of the plant moved from Europe to America.
The custom of kissing under a sprig of mistletoe is the one we most remember; it was fun to catch someone unaware under a bunch hanging in a doorway. The kissing ball originated in England, where when someone was kissed a white berry was plucked for the stem until all the berries were gone. Then the bundle was burned to wait another year.
A very disparaging truth is the word itself. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon as a compound word. "Mistel" means dung and "toe or tan" is a term for a twig or a branch. Putting the two words together they roughly translate as "poop on a stick." Remember they didn't have an old Sears catalogue in the garderobes, which served as indoor outhouses in the castles. So lost and hidden in time there may exist a grain of fact about an unheralded use for mistletoe. Somehow that fails to excite dreams of romance in our hearts.
The under-the-mistletoe custom is much older than 17th Century England and goes back to the Scandinavian countries, whose Norse gods deemed mistletoe with powerful mystical qualities including protection. Armies would meet under an oak tree sporting the plant and lay down their arms in a truce. Hence it became associated with peace and goodwill. Later it was hung in doorways to tell visitors when they entered a dwelling or tavern there would be no fighting on the premises.
A bundle of mistletoe hanging in the doorway of a home was protection against evil. Witches and ghosts were held at bay and not allowed to enter the home, much like the use of the herb, henbane.
It is a rare oak tree where one will find mistletoe. I suspect because oaks contain tannin which acts as a poison to the roots of the interlooping parasitic plant. In Europe the apple tree is a frequent host tree, while in the United States you will find it growing on a number of different species. Here in Ono County the most abundant host trees are walnuts. There are numberous examples along the road from town to our home, some so lush with growth that against the winter sky they seem not to have lost their summer leaves.
Birds eat the berries and excreet the seeds on branches where they roost. American mistletoe originally grew along the easter coast close to large bodies of water from New Jersey to Flordia. Gradually, the birds have distributed the seeds inland, again frequesntly growing in trees near an extensive body of water such as our inland man-made lakes.
Romance, fertility, or peace, the use of mistletoe as a decoration for the holidays is a custom we should not let die as it connects us with our ancient past.