What’s Mistletoe?

“Have a holly jolly Christmas,” my son is singing. “It’s the best time of the year. I don’t know if there’ll be snow, but gave a cup of cheer.”

It’s at this point, by the way, that I begin thinking about how much booze is found in Christmss carols. But I digress.

“Ho ho the missle toe, hung where you can see… “. He’s pronouncing the syllables distinctly:  missle toe. But then he looks at me. “Dad?  What’s mistletoe?”

A… plant?  A parasitic plant, maybe?  And… something to do with Druids?  That last bit of “knowledge” comes courtesy of reading Asterix comics as a kid, so make of it what you will.

Mistletoe” is a generic term these days, referring to a variety of parasitic plants with berries. The mistletoe in the carol, however, most likely refers to European mistletoe (Viscum album), a parasitic plant with waxy white berries. And it is associated with Druids!  According to Kew.org:

Mistletoe has had a long history of use in folk medicine. Druids (members of a priestly class active in Gaul during pre-Christian times) regarded mistletoe growing on oak as superior. Some of the constituent compounds of mistletoe affect the immune, circulatory and cardiac systems. Mistletoe has been used as an antiseptic, antispasmodic, astringent, digestive and diuretic, and, among the many ailments it has been used to treat, are epilepsy, ulcers, high blood pressure, rheumatism and certain types of cancer. Despite experimental anti-tumour effects, research is still underway to determine its clinical role, although the commercially available mistletoe extracts such as Iscador and Helixor are widely used as oncological drugs, particularly in Germany.

Druids used the plant as an aphrodisiac, and in Scandinavian tales it symbolises peace and love. Until the arrival of Christmas trees in the nineteenth century, the kissing bough held centre stage at Christmas, when a berry was plucked with each kiss until none was left. Today, mistletoe is still a favourite Christmas decoration.

So, an aphrodisiac with medicinal properties. Kind of puts “kiss her once for me” in perspective, doesn’t it?  Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean sport?

More seriously, unless you completely and utterly know what you are doing, don’t go picking mistletoe for aphrodisiacal or medicinal purposes. A lot of plants fall under that name, and many of them are poisonous. An evening in the emergency room is not a holly, jolly Christmas.

Addendum, 24 December 2015

National Geographic weighed in on this subject as well.  The whole article is worth reading, of course, but I particularly love the last three paragraphs:

Other origin stories say that people started kissing under mistletoe because it was a sign of fertility; and there are some physical clues as to why people may have thought this. Besides the fact that many species stay green in winter, some species have large berries that secrete what some have described as a semenlike substance.

In the U.S., kissing under the mistletoe used to be a lot more complicated. Washington Irving wrote that men commonly gave women as many kisses as there were berries on the mistletoe hanging above them, plucking off one per kiss. Hopefully, these couples never performed the ritual with the large white berries of dwarf mistletoe—which, in a move of evolutionary genius, spread their seeds by exploding.

A symbol of fertility indeed.