Mistletoe is the common name for a group of parasitic plants that grow attached to and within the branches of a tree or shrub. Mistletoe has sometimes been nicknamed the vampire plant because it can probe beneath tree bark to drain water and minerals, enabling it to survive during a drought. It is a poisonous plant that causes acute gatrointestinal problems including stomach pain and diarrhea along with low pulse.
Mistletoe bears fruit at the time of the Winter Solstice and may have been used in solstitial rites in Druidic Britain as a symbol of immortality. In Celtic mythology and in druid rituals, it was considered a remedy for barrenness in animals and an antidote to poison, although the fruits of many mistletoe are actually poisonous if ingested as they contain viscotoxins.
An old Christian tradition said that mistletoe was once a tree and furnished the wood of the Cross. After the Crucifixion, the plant shriveled and became dwarfed to a parasitic vine. In Romanian traditions, mistletoe is considered a source of good fortune. The medical and the supposed magical properties of the plant are still used, especially in rural areas.
Mistletoe leaves and young twigs are used by herbalists, and it is popular in Europe, especially in Germany, for treating circulatory and respiratory system problems, and cancer. Mistletoe is being studied as a potential treatment for tumors. Although such use is not yet permitted in the U.S., mistletoe is prescribed in Europe.
The sticky juice of mistletoe berries was used as adhesive to trap small animals or birds. In South Africa it is called Bird Lime. A handful of ripe fruits are chewed until sticky, and the mass is then rubbed between the palms of the hands to form long extremely sticky strands which are then coiled around small thin tree branches where birds perch. When a bird lands on this it gets stuck to the branch and is then easy to catch by hand.
Mistletoe is commonly used as a Christmas decoration. According to custom, the mistletoe must not touch the ground between its cutting and its removal as the last of Christmas greens at Candlemas. It may remain hanging through the year, often to preserve the house from lightning or fire, until it is replaced the following Christmas Eve. The appearance and nature of the fruit’s content is very suggestive of human semen and this has strengthened its pagan connections.
According to a custom of Christmas cheer, any two people who meet under a hanging of mistletoe are obliged to kiss. The custom is Scandinavian in origin. A popular Christmas song’s first line is, “I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus, underneath the mistletoe last night.”