By Norbert Sheerin
Of all the items associated with the festivities of Christmas, the mistletoe must rank high amongst the most popular.
Despite being often referred to as a parasitic plant because of its unique reputation of using a host plant for its survival, it still retains an almost iconic status, promoting friendship and love.
To be captured beneath it as it hangs innocently from a ceiling is to ensure that hugs and kisses are followed by laughter, friendship and the compliments of the season.
The plant demonstrates the ultimate in adaptability within its environment, growing on the upper branches of other trees, it uses the host tree for all of its own mineral elements and liquids.
The propagation of the plant is spread by birds who eat the white berries which possess a stickiness type texture which the bird wipes from its beak on to the bark of the host tree.
In time the residue becomes seed bearing and a new botanic life cycle begins. Being a very resilient plant, it thrives in all climates, with the European variety coming into full bloom in timely display for the festive season.
How the plant became associated with the Christmas season is not known, but in as much as its roots and tiny branches are entwined with the host plant, so also are its origins entwined with Druidic customs and mythology.
Legend has it that the custom of embracing and kissing beneath its seasonal magic dates back to Norse times where at the conclusion of an ancient battle, opposing leaders embraced under a mistletoe.
Other theories date it back to Roman times; to the Festival of saturnalia, which the Romans celebrated during the month of December which was observed at a time of unbridled merrymaking, revelry and glutinous feasting during which time selected slaves were granted their freedom.
The plant is associated and surrounded by mythology and mystery of the ages, dating back to a time long before Christ.
To the Druids of old, it became immersed in their ancient customs and beliefs.
To them it possessed almost magical qualities that assured good luck, health, fertility and courage. Because of its inherent resilient botanic qualities, it was deemed that it would pass on such positive attributes if it was used for the purpose of good as against evil; it extended to the Druids a branch of hope and good fortune.
In latter times, however, particularly in the United States, a much more sinister variety of the plant thrives. Compared to its European counterpart, which feeds only partially off its host, the American variety feeds totally off its host, denying it all sources of nourishment, thus leaving open and susceptible to disease and insect invasion; thus, hastening the hosts eventual death.
In this tragic life cycle however, the dwarf mistletoe that grows in America possesses its own unique method of propagation.
When the plant goes to seed the pod expand and literally burst open and explode thus sending its liquid at high speed on to other surrounding trees who unwittingly become future hosts ensuring the continuation of the mistletoe’s destructive endurance.
Despite that rather negative feature of the dwarf mistletoe, the rich legacy of love, friendship, enjoyment and celebration that is associated with the European variety endures.
Let the mistletoe be a channel through which we promote tolerance, love and understanding in a sometime troubled world.
Whenever a kiss is shared under its tiny branches a berry must be plucked, when all the berries have gone there are no more kisses.
Let there be an abundance of berries waiting to be plucked from your mistletoe this Christmas and let there be kisses all around under this magical plant.