Well, I’m actually writing this on the 22nd (and doing some final edits on the 23rd), so I can have a few days off, but you know what I mean. I already covered lots of Christmassy topics last year, so if you’re interested in that, have a look. Today, I want to write a little bit about a simple but mysterious Christmas plant: mistletoe.
No-one’s really sure where the tradition of kissing under mistletoe comes from. The plant plays an important role in Norse mythology, as the god Loki tricked Hodur into killing Balder with an arrow made of mistletoe, Balder’s only weakness. Some versions of the story have mistletoe become a symbol of peace and reconciliation after the murder, and this may be the origin of the kissing tradition.
The word mistletoe itself is quite interesting. The Latin name for the plant is Viscus album, Viscus meaning sticky, and album meaning white. Because the seeds are sticky and the berries are white, you see.
The stickiness is quite important to its survival. When birds eat the berries, the seeds pass quickly through their bodies, and retain enough stickiness to adhere to a branch and germinate (mistletoe is actually parasitic and grows on other trees).
The modern English name comes from adding the Old English word tan, meaning twig, to mistle, an old name for the plant. No-one’s really sure where mistle itself comes from though. Some suspect it may mean sticky.
Others though, think the name comes from the fantastic voyage the seed makes through a bird’s body before being deposited on a branch. The old Germanic root mist meant excrement, and this may be the origin of mistle, referring to the manner in which the seed exits the bird.
If that’s true, and mistletoe basically means shit twig, then it certainly casts the plant in a new light:
You going to hang some shit twig at your office party this year?
I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus, underneath the shit twig last night.
It completely ruins the rhythm of the song. Though shitty twig would work OK…
Anyway, forgive me if I’ve just ruined mistletoe for you, though hopefully you still have many other sources of festive cheer today. Merry Christmas!