I am sure that you have heard the lyrics to that old holiday song “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” but have you ever wondered what mistletoe is and how did the customs associated with it arise?
Mistletoe is an evergreen, parasitic plant that grows on the branches of trees, where it forms pendent bushes 2 to 5 feet in diameter. It will grow on almost any deciduous tree, especially those with soft bark.
When one of the sticky berries of the mistletoe comes into contact with the bark of a tree — generally through the assistance of birds — it sends forth a thread-like root, flattened at the extremity like the proboscis of a fly. The root pierces the bark and anchors itself firmly in the growing wood. It can then select juices required for its survival. It is interesting to note that the wood of mistletoe has been found to contain twice as much potash and five times as much phosphoric acid as the wood of the tree to which it is attached. Mistletoe is a true parasite; at no period of its existence does it derive nourishment from the soil, or from decayed bark, like some fungi do. All its nourishment is obtained from its host.
The stem is yellowish and smooth, freely forked, separating when dead into bone-like joints. The thick and leathery leaves are tongue-shaped, broader toward the end, 1 to 3 inches long, They exhibit a a dull yellow-green color and are arranged in pairs, with very short footstalks. The flowers, small and inconspicuous, are arranged in threes, in close short spikes or clusters in the forks of the branches, and are of two varieties, the male and female occurring on different plants. Neither male nor female flowers have a corolla, the parts of the fructification springing from the yellowish calyx. They open in May. The fruit is a globular, smooth, white berry, which ripens in December.
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The English name is said to be derived from the Anglo-Saxon misteltan, “tan” signifying twig, and “mistel” from “mist.” The Latin name of the genus, viscum, signifying “sticky,” was assigned to it due to the glutinous juice of its berries.
The ancient Druids held mistletoe in great reverence. The Druids thought that the mistletoe protected its possessor from evil, and that the oaks on which it was seen growing were to be respected because of the cures the priests were able to effect with it. They sent around their attendant youth with branches of the mistletoe to announce the arrival of the new year. It is probable that the custom of including it in the decoration of our homes at Christmas and giving it a special place of honor is a result of this old custom.