The sacred golden bough of mythology, mistletoe is a mysterious plant, the subject of poem, song, and legend. Its sacred nature is attributable to many factors. It grows only in the sky and never on the ground, so it is closer to the Heavens; it is propagated by birds, themselves symbolic messengers of the Gods; and its pearlescent berries represent drops of semen, so the mistletoe represents fertility. Mistletoe has healing properties, too, and is often hosted by a sacred tree.
A parasitic plant, many people assume that the oak trees host mistletoe, but in fact, it is much more usual for it to be found growing on old apple trees. Most visible in the winter months, when the trees are bare of leaves, bundles of mistletoe look like untidy birds’ nests, a scribble in the branches of the tree.
Birds play a large part in the life cycle of the mistletoe. The mistle thrush, in particular, eats the berries, these are “planted” when they are excreted. In addition, when the birds scrape their beaks on the branches to remove excess seeds, the seeds are embedded under the bark where they can take root.
Druids traditionally harvest mistletoe with a golden sickle, a magical tool that represents the Sun. It is vital that the plant is not tainted by contact with the ground and care is taken to make sure that it keeps airy associations intact. It is caught in sheets that are stretched taut around the tree.
As an evergreen, mistletoe symbolizes longevity and immortality and has become a traditional part of Christmas decoration in the home. However, although holly and ivy have managed to cloak their pre-Christian significance in order to enfold themselves into the mythology of the Church, it has been harder for mistletoe to be absorbed in the same way. The plant is an uncomortable reminder of powerful pre-Christian practices and beliefs, and is banned in many churches. Despite this, mistletoe is sometimes called lignum sanctae crucis, since the Church said at one time that the cross of Christ had been made of mistletoe wood (an unlikely claim for anyone familiar with the fragile stalks of the plant.)
Paradaxically, given that the mistletoe is poisonous, it is also called “all heal”. Because of its symbolism, it was used to aid feritlity problems, but latterly it has been found to be effective in circulatory and respiratory problems, as well as possessing anti-carcinogenic qualities.
Initially, people hung mistletoe indoors to ward off evil spirits. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is a remnant of its potency as a fetility symbol, and beause of the tinly little “x” (kiss) symbol found on the uderside of the berry.