The Story of Mistletoe: Celebrating the Holidays with Plants

Today, we’re deviating from our plant based skincare topics to talk about another plant: mistletoe!  Mistletoe is a strange plant and is parasitic in nature. So how did a parasitic, poisonous plant come to be linked with Christmas?  Here’s a quick holiday look at mistletoe.

What Is Mistletoe?

Mistletoe is not a shrub or a tree, but a parasite that attaches itself to certain types of trees. It produces small white berries that have seeds inside of them, and a gooey substance. There are more varieties that grow on trees in Europe than there are in North America. It finds its home like many seeds do–through bird droppings. As the seed begins to grow, the plant attaches itself to the “host” tree to absorb water and the nutrients that it needs to survive.

Mistletoe’s Mythic & Historic Roots

Girl With Red ScarfThere are stories of mistletoe as far back as the Norse. In this myth, the goddess Frigg lost her son to an arrow made of mistletoe. It shows up again in historical reference in the first century with the Druids. At the winter solstice, all lights are extinguished to represent the longest night. A single candle is lit and everyone lights their candle from it to represent the returning sun. Mistletoe would also be gathered and used to make a fertility elixir in anticipation of Spring.
During the Roman era, enemies would reconcile their differences under the mistletoe, which to them represented peace. Romans also decorated their homes and temples with mistletoe in midwinter to please their gods, and thus it showed up at the festival of Saturnalia, which was a celebration festival at the end of December.
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe during the festival of Saturnalia and later in marriage ceremonies, was associated with fertility, and since it was quite a wild festival, where no rules applied, the kissing was appropriate!
The mistletoe berries symbolize fertility and new life and were used in pre-Christian traditions, as were many other evergreens. With mistletoe’s white berries, the plant stood out against the bare branches of dormant trees in winter and was easy to find.

What About Mistletoe & Kissing at Holiday Parties?

There are writings showing that even after the Romans converted to Christianity, the mistletoe tradition persisted (along with other solstice and Saturnalia-related festivities). Fast forward to 19th century Europe, and there were continued mentions of mistletoe’s use throughout literature and letters from the time. The writer and diplomat, Washington Irving, wrote about mistletoe after returning from a trip to England. The piece, “Christmas Eve” (The Sketch Book,1820), read: 

" The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases."

Americans reading this decided it would be a fun tradition to adopt. In England, many people burned the mistletoe on the 12th night after Christmas, in order to make sure that marriages of the people who had kissed would come true.

The Power of Plants

Many plants are toxic, and mistletoe is no exception. It contains toxic amines, which are poisonous irritants in the chemical makeup of the plant. Eating the berries can cause vomiting and stomach pain. People who made tea from it in the past have even died.  This just reminds me that not all that is “natural” is always safe!

At Ayr Skin Care, we work with safe plants and safe oils to create non-toxic skin care products, but we remain respectful of mistletoe and other poisonous plants. Many times, the poison is a defense mechanism of the plant, and is there for a reason, possibly to help it survive.

Even if the history of mistletoe has been forgotten, the custom of exchanging kisses under the mistletoe is still found worldwide. 

We hope that you have a very merry Christmas and a beautiful New Year. We wish for you good health, clear skin, and the self love to take care of yourself. You are a gift to the world.

From our family to yours, have a very happy holiday season!

Bye for now!

Kirsten, xx

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