Dec. 12, 2002
CONTACT: Carol Anderson


From Healing to Kissing, Mistletoe has the Power

YPSILANTI - Parasites don't usually bring warm holiday thoughts or make people want to kiss each other, but then again, mistletoe has been considered mystical since before Christmas ever came to be.

Although they are studying different aspects of mistletoe, two Eastern Michigan University professors are interested in this small sprig of green, elongated leaves and white berries hung during Christmas. Mistletoe has been ascribed with great powers: it supposedly can confer instant affection, heal the sick, increase fertility, spark proposals of marriage and create peace.

European mistletoe is the variety most associated with Christmas. To know much about mistletoe is to wonder how anyone could look at it and have an amorous reaction or think it is powerful.

Mistletoe is a partial parasite, said Cathy Bach, EMU professor of biology. It produces food through photosynthesis, but looks elsewhere for water and minerals. Mistletoe attaches itself mainly to an apple or oak tree and sends its roots into the host tree for water and minerals. Birds eat the mistletoe berries and spread the seeds through their droppings, said Bach.

Similar to many other historical practices, mistletoe's origins go back many years and have evolved in meaning and practice.

According to Ronald Delph, EMU professor of medieval and early modern European history, around 500 B.C., the Druids, who were the priestly cast of the Celts, were attracted to mistletoe. It seemed to magically appear on oak trees that were believed to have a powerful spirit.

"The Druids believed in a world of animism where everything has a spirit, including rocks, rivers and plants," said Delph. "Mistletoe was seen as the 'soul of the oak'."

The Druids hoped to harness some of the oak tree's power for themselves. Magic wands were made of oak in hopes of manipulating the tree's power. With the mistletoe berries and leaves, the Druids were able to mix healing potions that worked well enough that people believed in them, said Delph. The berries are poisonous to people if eaten directly, but when the Druids mixed their mistletoe potions, people felt better, he said.

By 150 B.C., Romans were celebrating the festival of Saturnalia, where the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe began, said Delph.

"It was one of the great and most joyous days in the Roman year," he said. "Originally it was celebrated on Dec. 17 and accompanied by gift giving and festivities."

Kissing under the mistletoe was believed to confer fertility, said Delph. From fertility came a promise of marriage if kissed under the mistletoe. Due to the belief that it was a powerful and sacred plant, mistletoe was also seen as a plant of peace. If enemies met under a tree with mistletoe, they would declare a one-day truce and lay down their weapons.

Since England was settled by the Celts, mistletoe was incorporated into their Christmas celebration, said Delph, and for many generations, mistletoe has been a traditional Christmas decoration. But he suggests that mistletoe may be losing its holiday importance. "Mistletoe is so far removed from its original use that it might be starting to disappear from the modern Christmas celebrations," said Delph. "Mistletoe may be a victim of the sexual revolution. No one needs an excuse to kiss any longer."

If you're still interested in decorating with mistletoe, it's available. A sprig, can be found at local nurseries and if you're afraid of accidentally eating a poisonous berry, don't worry. The commercial sprigs have either plastic berries or none at all, said Bach. Most of the mistletoe associated with Christmas grows mainly in Texas, Louisiana and Florida - none of this variety is in Michigan.

In addition to the European mistletoe, there are 1300 varieties of mistletoe worldwide, said Bach. One variety that she is researching is the New Zealand mistletoe. It has attractive yellow or red flowers that are much sought after for Christmas in New Zealand, she said.

In addition, birds are also attracted to this mistletoe with flowers that have a "tricky twist." They twist open the New Zealand flower and it instantly sprays them with pollen.They then drink the nectar, eat the berry seeds and continue the process of mistletoe germination.

To most people the word "parasite" is negative, but somehow mistletoe is different.

"The mistletoe is an evergreen, or more precisely, it belongs to the holly family. Hence it always keeps its leaves. That would explain why it appealed to both pagans and Christians -- it represented life forces or eternal life in the bleakest days of the winter," said Delph.