Mistletoe is a classic Christmas decoration, which has always struck me as rather odd, considering that all varieties of mistletoe are parasitic plants. Depending on how bad the infestation is, mistletoe is quite capable of killing its host plants.
There are many types of mistletoe (117 species globally, 5 species of dwarf mistletoe are common in Montana). While mistletoe have many different host plants, around here our mistletoe varieties tend to be specialists on conifers – I’ve spotted some local Western Dwarf Mistletoe, generally found on Ponderosa Pines.
As for why we associate mistletoe plants with kissing?
They’ve been plants of spiritual importance for quite some time. And with that come many attempts at medicine… don’t try these at home, folks.
It’s easy to see why folks thought mistletoe might help fertility, though – Europe’s common mistletoe is an evergreen plant. It’s easy to find flourishing, clearly healthy and alive, even when all the deciduous trees are leafless. And think of how much more special the mistletoe would be thought, if it came from a type of tree held to be sacred, such as an Oak or an Ash.
The Roman historian Pliny the Elder claimed that Druids used mistletoe gathered from sacred oak trees in their rituals, though there’s little enough proof of that… it’s a long time back, the druids didn’t keep written records, and Pliny isn’t without error. Similarly, in northern Japan, the Ainu people used mistletoe gathered from their sacred willow trees to try to encourage fertility, as well as cure ailments.
In the great Roman epic, the Aeneid, the hero Aeneas is told to carry a golden branch of mistletoe with him on his journey to the underworld, so that he’ll be allowed to return to the surface world again. When there, he speaks with the dead, notably his father, and hears stories of how the Caesars will be his descendants.
However, it’s most likely that mistletoe’s connections to our holiday festivities come out of its ties to Norse mythology.
There’s a legend that the queen of the Norse gods, Frigga, went through all the world, making everything promise that it would not hurt her son, Baldr. You see, Baldr had recently begun to have visions of his death, and it is said that even gods find death a concerning prospect.
Now Baldr was a god of summer, beauty, and peace – best loved of all the gods. All the world pledged their love for Baldr. Stout oak and ash trees promised that their wood would never harm Baldr, stone and metal, beast and people alike. All pledged that they would not harm Baldr.
Loki, troublemaker of the gods, disguised himself as an old woman, and coaxed Frigga until she revealed the one thing she didn’t ask this of – mistletoe. She thought it too young, too weak a plant to harm Baldr, and hadn’t worried about asking it.
After hearing this, Loki journeyed east from Asgard, home of the gods, until he came to the forests where mistletoe grew. There he found mistletoe, and taking a particularly healthy plant, fashioned it into a throwing dart, and came back to the gathered gods celebrating Baldr’s invulnerability.
To test Baldr’s invulnerability, the gods held a celebration, and tried to harm Baldr with various weapons, lightly at first, then with more grievous and more grievous attacks. They delighted when nothing could harm Baldr, and believed that he had successfully cheated his visions of death.
At the outskirts of the gathering stood Hodr, Baldr’s blind half-brother. Another god of the seasons, Hodr was a god of winter, and surviving dark and harsh times. Loki asked Hodr why he wasn’t joining in the celebrations, and Hodr replied that he didn’t have a weapon to use against Baldr, and even if he did, he couldn’t see to use it properly. Loki offered to help Hodr join in the fun, gave him the dart of mistletoe to throw, and even helped guide his hand… When Baldr was struck, and mortally wounded, Loki made himself scarce, leaving poor Hodr to be executed for the murder of his brother.
The tale runs on, but the gist is that the Norse gods were unable to retrieve Baldr from the underworld. His mother, Frigga, wept, and her tears became the mistletoe berries. As Frigga was a goddess of love, marriage, motherhood and all things associated, mistletoe berries gained importance in treating infertility…
Not that I’d suggest you try to do so. Most mistletoe varieties are somewhat toxic.