Mistletoe has become a very popular Christmas decoration. If freshly cut sprigs from live plants are not available, plastic imitation mistletoe is used. Both types of mistletoe provide an opportunity for kissing under it.

The old Druid priests of ancient Britain made pilgrimages each year to certain oak tree forests where mistletoe grew. They believed it to be sacred, and at the time of the summer solstice they carefully harvested clusters of mistletoe branches with their waxen fruit. These were given to each member of their tribe to ward off evil and to bring happiness and good fortune.

Many other old civilizations believed in the magic of mistletoe. It was worn by some people as a charm against diseases and witchcraft. If put under a pillow, it was supposed to produce dreams that foretold the future. It was also used as an antidote against poisons and put in fields so that crops would grow well.

Old Scandinavian warriors would not fight an enemy beneath mistletoe, but if caught in such a situation they would accept the foe as a friend. If a bough of mistletoe were hung over an ancient Scandinavian doorway, all could enter there in friendship. This pledge was often sealed with a kiss.

An old English legend claims that mistletoe was once a tree and that its wood was used for Christ’s crucifixion cross. Because of this ignoble use, it was changed to a parasite and condemned to live only on other trees. Perhaps people believed that mistletoe was magical because it grew with no apparent roots.

Mistletoe is a hardy plant, and its leaves remain green year-round. Insects and diseases seem to shun contact with it. Ice and cold weather do not faze it, nor does extreme heat seem to bother this plant while it is growing on a tree. And it holds so firmly to the tree that winds cannot blow it away.

Birds eat the whitish berries of the mistletoe and distribute its seeds to other trees where they fly to sharpen their beaks. The seeds lodge in crevices of the bark and put out little rootlike threads into the tissue of the host tree. Mistletoe will live as long as the host tree lives, but when the tree dies from lack of moisture the mistletoe also dies.

In the South, Southwest, and some parts of the Rocky Mountains, mistletoe kills many trees each year, leeching away minerals and moisture until branches become brittle and the trees become stunted and finally die.

In order to harvest mistletoe for Christmas greens, men must cut it free from the host tree with long hooked knives on poles or shoot the clumps from treetops with guns. After being cut from the tree, mistletoe must be handled carefully. Heat will dry it out, its twigs break easily, its berries drop off, and cold freezes it.

Although some characteristics of mistletoe are not pleasant to contemplate, more people each year are finding pleasure in using the mystical charm of mistletoe to brighten the holiday time. Its use also promotes hospitality and friendship. The right to kiss under the mistletoe stands as an undisputed pleasure. And so this age-old, charm-ridden custom has an enchanting place that is welcomed in this season of love and good cheer.

Illustrated by Charles Shaw