Mistletoe: meaning, mythology and magic

Mistletoe has a long association with human culture capturing our imaginations in folklore, tradition and mythology.

Also known as European mistletoe, common mistletoe is a small semi-parasitic evergreen shrub which forms large spherical balls in the tops of trees. Mistletoe leaves, stems and berries are all poisonous. So why does mistletoe hold such a famous status in our winter tradition?

An ancient symbol

Mistletoe features as a symbol of tradition as far back as the days of ancient Greece. In Greek mythology heroes were granted passage to the underworld with mistletoe and if you were in an ancient Roman home in midwinter, mistletoe would be used as a decoration for the Saturnalia celebrations.

For Druidic societies the plant was believed to protect from evil and as a cure for disease and right through to the Middle Ages it has an association with fertility and vitality.

In Scandinavian and Norse legends mistletoe represents peace. The origins of this are found in one of the oldest mentions of mistletoe where in Norse mythology it is the only plant able to slay the otherwise invincible Baldar. Tricked by the mischievous Loki it is used as an arrow by the god Hodar to murder Baldar. After this tragedy the plant then becomes a symbol of reconciliation and love.

Today mistletoe is widely used as a festive decoration for the Christmas period. The custom of claiming a kiss under the mistletoe is recorded as far back as the 16th Century later becoming firmly established as a popular Christmas tradition. Hung above a doorway a berry is removed for every kiss claimed.

Appearing from nowhere

Mistletoe
(Photo: WTML)

For early societies the plants apparent ability to spontaneously appear without roots had a magical significance. We now know this is down to birds spreading the sticky seeds to the tops of trees and its parasitic nature. Mistletoe is able to make some of its own energy but it gets most of it from its host using specially adapted roots to penetrate the bark and tap into their supply of minerals and water.

Grow your own in 3 easy steps

Mistletoe was once more widely cultivated and you can have a go at growing your own.

  1. Pick a fresh berry from mistletoe in a tree similar to the one in which you want to grow your mistletoe
  2. Squash the berry to get the seeds then on a high, thick branch with plenty of light make a small shallow cut in the bark
  3. Simply push the seed underneath the loosened bark. The tree should be at least 15 years old to stand a chance of success

So this Christmas if you find yourself under the mistletoe remember you’re keeping a mistletoe tradition alive.