The Facts: Botanically speaking, mistletoe is a ‘hemiparasite,’ which means it’s capable of producing its own food by photosynthesis but often/also sends out roots that penetrate the branches or trunk of the host tree in order to steal nutrients. Because it’s an evergreen that cozies up in deciduous trees, we notice it more often in the winter time once host tree leaves have fallen. The seeds are spread through bird droppings – sometimes it is so high up in trees it gets “harvested” by shotgun! .
The Folklore: So how did a parasite become a symbol and tradition during holiday festivities? Some say the answer lies in Norse Mythology. In ancient Scandinavia, if enemies met by chance beneath mistletoe in the forest, they would lay down their arms and hold a truce until the next day. This custom went hand-in-hand with the Norse myth or Baldur, whose mother, Frigga, made every object, animal and plant promise not to harm her son except mistletoe, which she overlooked. After a Norse god killed Baldur, with a spear fashioned from mistletoe that brought winter into the world, his mother declared the plant sacred. Baldur was eventually resurrected and Frigga ordered that any two people passing beneath it must celebrate Baldur’s life by kissing.
The Footnote??: In more recent history, Washington Irving wrote about a now often-overlooked aspect of the mistletoe tradition in a footnote of “Christmas Eve”
“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.”
Those berries, by the way, probably shouldn’t be eaten. Quite a few sources say they are poisonous despite the fact that they have long been considered an aphrodisiac.