Long ago and far away — in 1950s Iowa, that is — grocery store produce sections marked the beginning of the holiday season by laying in a supply of cranberries, mixed nuts, and mistletoe. The mistletoe wasn’t for eating, but for hanging. Three or four stems, bearing scattered white berries and tied with red ribbon, were considered de rigueur for New Year celebrations; hanging in doorways or from overhead light fixtures, they ensured opportunities for traditional New Year’s kisses.
Mistletoe traditions can be traced to very early times, when mistletoe was part of winter solstice celebrations. Druids revered the oak; their reverence included the mistletoe which grew on oaks, and which was assumed to have healing properties.
In time, new traditions developed. An anonymously-written book published in 1816 — Popular Pastimes, being a Selection of Picturesque Representations of the Customs & Amusements of Great Britain in Ancient and Modern Times — contained hand-colored plates attributed to Francis Philip Stephanoff, and this delightful passage (note that the spelling of ‘mistletoe’ has changed over the centuries):
Mistletoe is still beheld with emotions of pleasurable interest, when hung up in our kitchens at Christmas; it gives licence to seize “the soft kiss” from the ruby lips of whatever female can be enticed or caught beneath. So custom authorizes, and it enjoins also, that one of the berries of the Misletoe be plucked off after every salute. Though coy in appearance, the “chariest maid” at this season of festivity is seldom loth to submit to the established usage; especially when the swain who tempts her is one whom she approves.
In time, the custom of decorating churches with greens took hold, and mistletoe was included. In his poem Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve, Robert Herrick (1591–1674) wrote about taking down the greenery, including mistletoe, to signal the end of the Christmas season.
Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletoe;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
The greener box, for show.
A different poem quoted in Popular Pastimes is undated, but hints that the custom existed in even earlier times.
The Misletoe hangs from an oaken beam,
he Ivy creeps up the outer wall;
The Bays our broken casements screen,
The Holly-bush graces the hall.
Then hey for our Christmas revelling,
For all its pastimes pleasures bring.
The Misletoe’s berries are fair and white,
The Ivy’s of gloomy sable hue;
Red as blood the Laurel’s affect our sight,
And the Holly’s the same with prickles too.
Before being hung in isolation, mistletoe may have been incorporated into kissing boughs: two intersecting circles of greenery which eventually became our ‘kissing balls.’
When hung in a doorway near the entrance to a house, visitors would embrace the home’s master and mistress under the kissing bough as a sign of goodwill. The inclusion of mistletoe in these kissing boughs may have given rise to the more modern tradition of kissing under mistletoe.
In John Leech’s illustration of Mr Fezziwig’s Christmas party in A Christmas Carol there appears to be a kissing bough hanging from the ceiling, as well as mistletoe being held by hand over a girl’s head.
Kissing aside, mistletoe may have other uses which our ancestors hardly could have imagined. While reading about the sticky viscin threads that characterize flowers like the Pink Evening Primrose, I noticed a reference to another source of the substance: mistletoe.
Each mistletoe berry can produce up to two metres of sticky viscin threads. The substance allows the seeds of this parasitic plant to stick to and infect its hosts, like the oak trees which the Druids revered. A recent paper from McGill University and the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces suggests that, once processed, viscin’s stiff but flexible fibres, which adhere to both skin and cartilage as well as to various synthetic materials, could have a range of applications.
That discovery also was serendipitous. Matthew Harrington, a senior author on the McGill paper, wrote:
I had never seen mistletoe before living in Germany. So, when my daughter was playing with a berry from a mistletoe we bought from a local Christmas market, and it started sticking to everything, I was intrigued.
Researchers eventually discovered that viscin fibres, which stick to themselves as well as to other materials, could be stretched into thin films, making them potentially useful as wound sealant or skin covering. The fact that the viscin’s stickiness is reversible under humid conditions makes it even more interesting, and more useful.
Given the properties of its viscin-laden berries, the mistletoe draping our Texas oaks eventually may become more than an unsightly or bothersome parasite; that could be worth both a hug and a kiss.