Romantic Sword-Berry Fertility Protector: The Rundown on Mistletoe

So if you ended up at tree lot this weekend, despite my compelling and articulate plea as to why it makes little sense,  I understand. I ended up going with friends, who bought a lovely tree at a charitable lot from an organization I love to support. My partner, Martin,* objects not to tree slaughter or holiday consumption, but rather to the arbitrary price points he’s set in his head that determine whether he’ll partake in a given holiday tradition. Here’s a clip of the dialogue at the aforementioned tree lot:

Him: “$80.00 is too much for a tree. We’re going to Home Depot.”

Me: “Why get a tree at all? We’re traveling, and it’ll only be up for a month. Let’s just appreciate other people’s trees.”

Him: “No. I like the pine smell. We’re getting a tree for twenty bucks.”

So, after coaxing me with an Arizmendi Bakery breakfast, we went. And just like he plotted, he found a tree, with a stand, for $25.00. And aside from being disproportionately wide in relation to its height, I’ll give it to him: the tree is pretty. I’ve named it “Fat-Prickly Bastard.”I think it’s cute.

Anyway, getting to my point. While at the Delancey lot, our friends also picked up mistletoe, which again, led me to google out its significance. Turns out mistletoe was sort of the duct tape of the pre-Christian world.

The word “Mistletoe” dates back to the 13th century, and is thought to be derived from the Norse word for sword, (“Mistilteinn”) and has long since been a symbol for manhood, fertility and romance. Other sources suggest that the word is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words, “mistel” (dung) and “tan” (twig), Old English “misteltann” after bird droppings on a branch. But even before that, in the 8th century, the Vikings thought mistletoe could raise the dead (I couldn’t find any results to back this claim…). The Celts used mistletoe for animal fertility but it served other uses too: poison remedy, medicine, hunter’s aid. Folks hung the branches in their houses all year long to protect against lightening and fire, and would replace it every Christmas. The connection between medicine, bird poop, and kissing seems a little blurry, but American author Washington Irving wrote about the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe back in 1820: “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.”

This hodgepodge botanical doesn’t have a clear line of provenance, at least according to the twenty minutes of arduous research I did for this post. And though many of mistletoe’s uses have faded into history, it’s interesting how the tradition remained for it to serve as a potentially creepy way to kiss someone you might not otherwise have access.

* Not his real name. He’s not shy, mind you, just paranoid.


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