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Mistletoe Background

Primer

Kissing under the mistletoe has long been a part of Christmas tradition. But just what is mistletoe and how did it's association with Christmas evolve?

About the Plant
Mistletoe is interesting botanically because it is a partial parasite (a "hemiparasite"). As a parasitic plant, it grows on the branches or trunk of a tree and actually sends out roots that penetrate into the tree and take up nutrients. But mistletoe is also capable of growing on its own; like other plants it can produce its own food by photosynthesis. Mistletoe, however, is more commonly found growing as a parasitic plant.


Origins of its name
The common name of the plant is derived from the ancient belief that mistletoe was propagated from bird droppings. This belief was related to the then-accepted principle that life could spring spontaneously from dung. It was observed in ancient times that mistletoe would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings. "Mistel" is the Anglo-Saxon word for "dung," and "tan" is the word for "twig". So, mistletoe means "dung-on-a-twig".


Tradition
Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites. Mistletoe was believed to have the power of bestowing fertility, and the dung from which the mistletoe was thought to arise was also said to have "life-giving" power.

Did you know?

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on trees, particularly hardwood trees like oak and apple.

Mistletoe berries are eaten by birds that eventually leave their droppings on tree branches. The droppings contain seeds that sprout roots into the tree branch.