Origin of the word
The word mistletoe comes from the Old English ‘mistiltan’, which is derived from the word ‘mistel’ meaning ‘dung’ and ‘tan’ meaning ‘twig’. The plant tends to grow from trees where bird droppings have fallen, which is how it got its rather unusual name.
Mistletoe refers to a parasitic green plant with small, round, green leaves and white berries that usually grows on trees, stealing the nutrients it needs by burrowing its roots into the trunk of the tree.
In Europe, the most common variety of mistletoe is called Viscum album and can be found most often growing on oak trees. The plant is a popular food for birds and the growth of mistletoe is spread through bird droppings. Birds eat the berries, the seeds pass through their digestive systems and are expelled onto trees where they germinate and a new plant begins to grow. Heavy infestations of mistletoe can do significant damage to trees, and it is highly toxic due to poisonous proteins found in the berries and leaves.
The plant has a long, mystical history dating back to the ancient Druids, who believed mistletoe had the power to bestow good fortune, long life and prosperity. They developed rituals for harvesting the plant; they believed these rituals would ward off the evil spirits that would destroy the mistletoe’s power.
In the middle ages, people hung branches of mistletoe from their ceilings to scare off witches and evil spirits. Mistletoe was also known to be a symbol of peace, and enemies would meet under a tree covered in the plant, put down their weapons, exchange a greeting and put an end to their disagreement until the next day. In some Scandinavian countries, it was used to help broker peace between quarrelsome spouses. In 18th century Europe, people would often make balls of mistletoe and decorate them with evergreen branches, ornaments and ribbons. According to folklore, sharing a kiss under the mistletoe symbolized the beginning of a long and lasting friendship or romantic relationship.
Today, many cultures still practice the custom of sharing a brief kiss under the mistletoe, especially around the Christmas holidays. The tradition is thought to bring good luck, love and prosperity in the new year.
1. a bush that produces small white fruits. Its branches are often used as a Christmas decoration.
View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.