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The word ‘mistletoe’ (Old English mistiltan) may be related to German ‘mist,’ for ‘dung’ and ‘tang’ for branch, since mistletoe can be spread in the feces of birds moving from tree to tree. However, Old English ‘mistel’ was also used for ‘basil.’
Mistletoe was considered an herb too sacred to have a Celtic name.
On the Celtic Tree Calendar, the Night of Mistletoe is the day after Winter Solstice.
Mistletoe was a very special and sacred herb to the ancient Druids, who called it ‘All-Heal.’ It was harvested, according to Pliny the Elder, with a golden sickle, and was not allowed to touch the ground after being harvested.
History and Folklore of Mistletoe
European mistletoe, Viscum album, figured prominently in Greek mythology, and is believed to be The Golden Bough of Aeneas, ancestor of the Romans.
In the 13th century Prose Edda, due to the scheming of Loki, the god Baldr is killed by his brother, the blind god Höðr, by way of a mistletoe projectile, despite the attempts of Baldr’s mother, the goddess Frigg, to have all living things and inanimate objects swear an oath not to hurt Baldr after Baldr had troubling dreams of his death. Frigg was unable to get an oath from mistletoe, because “it seemed too young” to demand an oath from. In the Gesta Danorum version of the story, Baldr and Höðr are rival suitors, and Höðr kills Baldr with a sword named Mistilteinn (Old Norse “mistletoe”). In addition, a sword by the same name appears in various other Norse legends.
In cultures across pre-Christian Europe, mistletoe was seen as a representation of divine male essence (and thus romance, fertility and vitality), possibly due to a resemblance between the berries and semen.
According to Pliny the Elder, the Celts considered it a remedy for barrenness in animals and an antidote to poison.
Mistletoe is commonly used as a Christmas decoration, though such use was rarely alluded to until the 18th century. Viscum album is used in Europe whereas Phoradendron serotinum is used in North America. According to custom, the mistletoe must not touch the ground between its cutting and its removal as the last of Christmas greens at Candlemas; it may remain hanging through the year, often to preserve the house from lightning or fire, until it was replaced the following Christmas Eve. The tradition has spread throughout the English-speaking world but is largely unknown in the rest of Europe.
According to ancient Christmas custom, a man and a woman who meet under a hanging of mistletoe were obliged to kiss. The custom may be of Scandinavian origin. It was described in 1820 by American author Washington Irving in his “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon”:
“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.”
Mistletoe leaves and young twigs are used by herbalists, and it is popular in Europe, especially in Germany, for treating circulatory and respiratory system problems. Use of mistletoe extract in the treatment of cancer originated with Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy. He compared the parasitic nature of the mistletoe plant to that of cancer, and believed that cancer represents a faltering of the body’s spiritual defenses. Some anthroposophical mistletoe preparations are diluted homeopathically. Mistletoe extract is sold as Iscador, Helixor, and several other trade names.
The sticky juice of mistletoe berries was used as adhesive to trap small animals or birds. A handful of ripe fruits are chewed until sticky, and the mass is then rubbed between the palms of the hands to form long extremely sticky strands which are then coiled around small thin tree branches where birds perch. When a bird lands on this it gets stuck to the branch and is then easy to catch by hand.