Monday, December 15, 2008

It Must Have Been the Mistletoe

In Scandinavian antiquity it was the custom that if enemies should meet by chance underneath mistletoe, which would be hanging from a tree out in the forest, then they must lay down their weapons in truce until the following day. The ancient Celtic tribes saw it as a mystical sacred plant with medicinal and spiritual powers. But it was in Norse mythology that the kissing tradition began with the story of Baldur's death and resurrection. It was said that Baldur's mother, Frigga, made all the plants and animals promise that they would never harm Baldur. However, she somehow neglected to give mistletoe the message. The scheming god Loki found out, and tricked another god into killing Baldur with a spear whose tip was fashioned from mistletoe. This killing of Baldur is said to have brought winter into the world. However, Baldur was eventually revived by the gods, and mistletoe was pronounced sacred, with Frigga proclaiming that from now on the plant would signify love. From this story sprang the Norse usage of the plant as an aphrodisiac and a fertility aid. The tradition evolved over the centuries, and at some point it became custom in Colonial times for young men to kiss young women under the mistletoe, then pluck one of the berries from the plant. When all the berries were gone, the kissing privilege then ceased. This was the origin of the modern custom of kissing under the mistletoe. That current custom states that if any two people should find themselves underneath mistletoe at any time, that they must kiss in a show of Christmas cheer. Unlike those days of antiquity, you don't have to wait these days for an opportunity out in the wild, as mistletoe is now intentionally placed in doorways and entryways as a Christmas decoration, leading to many opportunities for holiday affections. Mistletoe has become a welcome addition to the Christmas joy traditions, both in its actual displays and its references in popular Christmas songs, bringing a romantic touch to the holidays. But what actually is this little plant that has become such a big part of the holiday season? For one thing, don't make the mistake of eating mistletoe, on a dare or otherwise. It is a poisonous plant to humans that causes acute stomach and intestinal problems and can lower blood pressure to dangerous levels. It is a partially parasitic plant in that it attaches to host trees, bushes, and shrubs. It gets spread around by birds who eat the mistletoe and then leave their droppings on the other plants. But it is also an evergreen whose leaves outlast those of its hosts during winter. It was long thought of as a negative influence on the ecological systems, but recent evidence has shown that it actually has great importance as both a direct food source for animals and as a lure to bring birds into an area. An old Christian tradition said that the mistletoe was once a tree, the wood of which was used in fashioning the Cross which Jesus Christ carried and on which he was hung. Following this notorious usage, the plant is said to have shriveled everywhere and became dwarfed into the tiny parasitic vine that it is now. Mistletoe is actually being studied as a possible treatment for tumors, and is already used in Europe for treating circulatory and respiratory problems, and even cancer as a prescription medication. Eat the mistletoe and you will probably get a stomach ache and diarrhea. But it may one day prove to be a pharmaceutical miracle to humans. Today, simply hang it and enjoy its beauty, and you may just get yourself a kiss as well.

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