Kisses and hugs have been in short supply in 2020. Social distancing has curtailed demonstrations of affection. Mistletoe has acquired associations with kissing. It is also associated with tears. There have been more than enough tears in 2020. What are the origins of these customs and myths?
Christmas and New Year decorations are not complete without a sprig of Mistletoe. The plant is steeped in mythology and symbolism. It has long been associated with fertility and peace. The kissing connection is a relatively recent tradition by comparison. The Victorians liked to hang Mistletoe above a door or in a walkway, then await the opportunity to steal a kiss. According to the custom, you are supposed to remove one of the white berries for each kiss. The kissing stops when the berries run out.
Mistletoe plays a role in Norse Mythology. The goddess Frigg’s son Baldr was the god of light, joy, purity and the summer sun. He kept dreaming of his own death. Frigg sought promises from every earthly object that it would not harm her son. She overlooked Mistletoe. Baldr seemed invincible and participated in a game in which various dangerous projectiles were launched at him. Malicious trickery resulted in a fatal dart from Mistletoe being thrown at him by his blind twin brother. Frigg was bereft. Mistletoe’s white, translucent berries represent her tears.
Mistletoe is classed as hemi-parasitic as opposed to a parasitic plant because its green leaves have chlorophyll to photosynthesise. It also uses a rootlike structure called a haustorium to draw water and nutrients from its host tree. The Mistletoe’s seed is surrounded by sticky pulp that birds find very difficult to get rid of. They end up rubbing it off on trees and facilitating the transfer of Mistletoe to a new host.
My nearest Mistletoe appears at low level on a Crab Apple tree. Most other local finds are in Apple Orchards. Somerset is one of the British counties with a lot of Mistletoe. This winter my local botany group, the Somerset Rare Plants Group (SRPG), are taking a particular interest in Mistletoe and carrying out a survey (see link below). Winter is an ideal time to spot the tell-tale signs of Mistletoe high in tree branches.
References and Further Reading
- Briggs, Jonathan (2000): The Mistletoe Directory. January 2000.
- Mythology Wiki (?): Baldr. Wikia.org
- Rumsey, Fred (2013): Mistletoe (Viscum album). Natural History Museum. YouTube. 19 December 2013.
- Somerset Rare Plants Group (SPRG) (2020): Somerset Mistletoe Survey December 2020 – March 2021.
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