Mistletoe, a Christmas tradition
Posted: Tuesday, December 20, 2011 8:03 pm
By JIMMY WILLIAMS
Special to The Messenger
“I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus underneath the Phoradendron serotinum last night. …
What a laugh it would have been if Daddy had only seen Mommy kissing Santa Claus last night.”
Baby Jane, who witnessed the illicit tryst, was too technical for John Mellencamp, so when he sang those now immortal (not immoral) lyrics he changed the botanical Latin to the more familiar mistletoe. Just kidding.
Mistletoe has been the subject of folklore and myth since long before Baby Jane was even an impulse. In fact, it was originally the European species that came to the attention of Druids and other ancients. They brought mistletoe and other evergreens, including holly, inside in winter to remind them of more amenable times of the year. This practice morphed into our use of mistletoe as a Christmas fixture.
The English word mistletoe probably originated from the German, referring to dung, since mistletoe seeds are transferred from place to place by bird droppings. The plant itself is referred to even in ancient Greek mythology.
The American species was the subject of the song, and it is similar to the European kind. The white berries are poisonous to humans, causing diarrhea and other intestinal complications, but birds find them palatable. They eat them, then pass the berries through their digestive systems, where they lodge into tree branches and crevices, and there they germinate.
The plants are parasites, drawing water and mineral nourishment from their tree hosts. Most trees will support mistletoe, but it seems in our area maples and elms are most commonly seen bearing mistletoe.
A cluster of mistletoe will usually mature at about 18 inches across, but occasionally an unusual mass will measure three feet or more.
I have never known mistletoe to kill a tree, but it would seem to be, theoretically anyhow, possible. One often meets a maple so loaded with mistletoe it seems there is as much of it is there is of the tree, yet the tree survives.
It was not until the 18th century that mistletoe was referred to as a Christmas green. The original custom dictated the mistletoe could not touch the ground after it was harvested until it was the final evergreen removed at Candlemas. Sometimes, however, it was left hanging until the following Christmas Eve as a supposed protection from fire and lightning.
The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is of unknown origin, but probably started in Europe. Each time a young man kissed a girl under mistletoe, it was required that a berry be removed from the cluster. Once all the berries were gone, kissing privileges ceased, unless, of course, some nymphomaniacal lass kept putting the make on.
The favored method of harvesting mistletoe is to shoot into a cluster with a shotgun, knocking it down from on high. The blast from the hundreds of pellets in a shotgun shell often shreds the elusive botanical game beyond recognition, however.
A better way is to use a .22 caliber rifle, though a higher degree of marksmanship is required. By aiming at the base of the mistletoe branches, they can be severed from the host tree with little damage, and sometimes the bullet will harvest more than one twig at a shot.
Once harvested, tie your cluster over the doorway, sit back and wait for a victim. Who knows what will ensue?
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 12.20.11