Although the history of mistletoe has become intertwined with our winter Christmas holiday, the mistletoe family (the order Santalales) actually originated in the tropics. Mistletoe is a hemi-parasitic plant. It obtains most of its nutrition from other plants, but it also produces some photosynthesis on its own. It has been the subject of legend throughout recorded history.
The name "mistletoe" comes from "mistel" (the Anglo-Saxon word for "dung") and "tan" (the word for "twig"). The ancients believed that the plant was spread by bird droppings. Mistletoe was significant to ancient European tribes possibly because it grew on oak trees, which were objects of veneration.
Pliny the Elder (23 to 79 B.C.) recorded the belief of some that mistletoe held the life of the oak after its leaves had fallen. It was thought to have mystical ability which could be harnessed for healing; care must be taken not to let it touch the ground after it was harvested, otherwise it would lose its power.
Dwarf mistletoe growing in North America was important to native American people for whom it served as a source of medicine. Mistletoe is now used as an alternative treatment for cancer.
The Druids were priests of a Celtic religion in ancient Gaul, Britain and Ireland; they worshipped mistletoe. It played a part in their Midsummer Eve rites. A golden sickle was used to cut mistletoe from an oak tree as a prelude to a sacrificial ceremony. Though the Druids were later converted to Christianity, the ancient practice of cutting mistletoe survived and remained an integral part of holiday celebrations.
Mistletoe was possibly the "golden bough" which lighted the way for the hero Aeneas in Virgil's classical story "Aeneid." The plant is also found in Nordic myth about the god Balder; he is killed by an arrow made from a twig of mistletoe in one legend. When he came back to life, the mistletoe became a symbol of peace and love.
There are numerous myths and traditions surrounding the mistletoe. Mistletoe was cut and tied in bunches over cottages and stables to frighten away demons or witches, and it was thought to prevent and extinguish fire. In Wales, it was believed to cause dreams of omens if kept under one's pillow.
Kissing Under the Mistletoe
One tradition that remains popular to this day is that of kissing under a sprig of mistletoe. According to Frank H. Tainter, Emeritus professor at Clemson University, the first documented case of kissing under the mistletoe dates from the 16th century in England. It is possible it began because of beliefs about the plant's effect on fertility. The berries of all mistletoe plants are toxic to people and pets; plastic berries are often substituted for real ones.