In a holiday season filled with tradition, few Christmas customs are as popular as kissing someone under the mistletoe. But the origins of the plant's uses and the word itself are steeped in history and mystery.
A parasitic plant, mistletoe seeds often are planted on trees via the digestive tracts of birds, particularly a European bird called the mistle thrush. As the seed sprouts, mistletoe roots grow into limbs and steal nutrients from the host tree.
The North American version of mistletoe is very common locally, Columbia County Extension Agent Charles Phillips said.
"It grows on hardwood trees. Oak trees and elm trees are two of the more common trees you'll find it in," he said. "Right now, all of those trees have lost their leaves, so if you see a bunch of green up in a tree, it's mistletoe."
Nearby Mistletoe State Park bears the name of the prevalent plant.
Before being clear-cut for farm land, the area surrounding the lakeside park was a forest of hardwood trees, Park Manager Bill Tinley said.
These sprigs of mistletoe are among the many that can be found in Columbia County. Mistletoe State Park takes its name from the former Mistletoe Corners community.
Photo by Donnie Fetter
"The name actually came from an area called Mistletoe Corners," he said. "From what we can figure out, Mistletoe Corners was in the area around where that little store is a mile away from us. It used to be covered in hardwood trees. Of course, we're talking about 200 years ago."
Now, little of the plant exists in the area, but it is remembered as being one of the more popular spots for people to gather mistletoe for Christmas decorations.
The association of mistletoe with peace and love is said to be traced to the Vikings.
One version of a Norse myth says that Balder, son of the love goddess Frigga, was slain with an arrow made of mistletoe. Frigga managed to save her son's life and commanded that mistletoe never again be used for harm. She made it a symbol of love by kissing anyone who passed under it.
The plant also became a symbol of peace, and warriors who met beneath had to call a truce until the next day, according to Norse and Anglo-Saxon tradition.
The complete origin of the plant's name is unknown. Some etymologists trace mistletoe's name to the Germanic "mista," meaning dung - from how birds help propagate the plant - and "tan" for twig. Others cite the Old English word "misteltan" - "mistel," which itself means mistletoe, and "tan" for twig.
Although mistletoe berries are poisonous, Phillips said some cultures used the plant for healing.
"North American Indians used it for toothaches, measles and dog bites," he said. "Medicinally, it's still used a little bit today, but only in skilled hands."
Despite its pagan origins, kissing beneath a sprig of mistletoe has become firmly linked to Christmas.
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