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Mistletoe is two kinds of plant, one found in North American and the other found in Europe. The European version is green and shrub-like, with yellow flowers and berries that are white and quite poisonous. The North American version is one that looks similar to the European version (with berries that are either white or red and flowers that are red or yellow or green) but is a semi-parasite that commonly grows on apple and rarely on trees, getting its nutrients from the branches or trunk of a tree but also produces its own food.

Mistletoe is more widely known, however, as one of the symbols of the Christmas season, and it is the North American version that fills the bill here.

Mistletoe can be found described in the traditions of several ancient cultures, among them the Celts, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Norse. The Druids of ancient Celtic tradition revered the oak tree and so considered sacred the mistletoe, found more commonly on oak in those days than it is now. The Druids incorporated mistletoe into some of their sacred rites.
In Roman tradition, Aeneas is said to have claimed the Golden Bough, which many scholars think was mistletoe. The ancient Greeks thought that mistletoe had mystical powers.

Norse tradition has mistletoe featuring prominently in a widely told story involving the goddess Frigga and her "kiss of life" to her son Balder.

Medieval Europeans hung mistletoe on walls and over doorways, to protect against what they considered evil spirits.

The Scandinavian tradition most closely matches the modern use of mistletoe. In those cultures, the mistletoe was considered a plant of peace. Enemies standing under a hanging bit of mistletoe could declare a truce, sometimes sealed with a kiss on the cheek(s). This practice has evolved into the familiar modern tradition of people feeling compelled to exchange kisses while standing under hanging mistletoe.

Most sources do not agree on how mistletoe came to hung at Christmas and not at some other time of the year. Some scholars associate it with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which took place in late December. Other scholars think that the Frigga element got folded in with Christian ideas of the birth (and resurrection) of Jesus. Still other scholars trace the Christmas-season hanging of mistletoe to a Druid mid-winter festival.

A description of the practice can be found in Washington Irving's The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.


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