Sunday, December 23, 2012

Kissing Under Mistletoe

Mistletoe refers to any of more than 200 species of semi-parasitic shrubs found worldwide. Mistletoe lives throughout the southern United States, from the Atlantic Coast to California, and on every continent except Antarctica.

Having true parasitic properties, mistletoe is devoid of roots. Instead, the dark green shrub has extensions called holdfasts that grip the host tree, from which the root-like anchors suck water and nutrients. Mistletoe is only found on living trees, which are essential to the mistletoe's survival. In contrast, Spanish moss uses trees dead or alive, but only for support, extracting water and nutrients from the atmosphere.

In the South, tiny yellow flowers bloom on the evergreen mistletoe from fall into winter. The familiar white berries begin to form soon after pollination and resemble little packets of glue around tiny indigestible seeds. A mistletoe plant can be either male or female, and, like a holly tree, only the female plant has berries. Although eating mistletoe berries may potentially be lethal for humans, birds seem to be immune to any toxicity.

The immunity of birds to mistletoe's poisonous qualities is essential to the welfare of the plant. The dispersal and propagation of mistletoe is largely dependent on birds that eat the berries but do not digest the seeds. Ecological studies suggest that seeds are most likely to survive and grow if a bird deposits them on the same species of tree on which the parent plant lived. A spring migration flock of cedar waxwings can result in newly developing mistletoe plants being far away from where the seeds were eaten.

Mistletoe thrives in bright sunlight in the uppermost branches of big oaks and is absent from pines and evergreen hardwoods such as magnolias with needles and leaves that hamper direct sunlight.

Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites. They probably originated from two beliefs. One belief was that it has power to bestow fertility. It was also believed that the dung from which the mistletoe would also possess "life-giving" power.
In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses kiss and make-up. Later, the eighteenth-century English credited with a certain magical appeal called a kissing ball. At Christmas time a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill. If the girl was not kissed, she can expect to marry the following year. 

In some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe is burned on the twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry. Whether we believe it or not, it always makes for fun and frolic at Christmas celebrations. Even if the pagan significance has been long forgotten, the custom of exchanging a kiss under the mistletoe can still be found in many European countries as well as in Canada. If a couple in love exchanges a kiss under the mistletoe, it is interpreted as a promise to marry, as well as a prediction of happiness and long life. In France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year's Day. Today, kisses can be exchanged under the mistletoe any time during the holiday season.

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