Thursday, December 8, 2016

Mistletoe and Holly, article in the Western Druggist 1895

Mistletoe and Holly, article in the Western Druggist 1895

There seems to be a general impression that the use of mistletoe as a Christmas decoration celebrates some religious ceremony of earlier times. This is not the case, however. It is said that it is an altogether unworthy vegetable. Yet it has been reverenced by heathen nations time out of mind. It was used by the Romans in temple ceremonies, and the druids, the priests of heathen Britain, held the mistletoe of the oak in the utmost veneration. They gathered it at yuletide with great solemnity. The chief druid, clothed in a white robe, climbed the oak, and with a golden sickle gathered the mistletoe. It was reverently received on a white cloth by another white-robed druid standing on the ground, and afterward distributed among the people who carefully preserved it.

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Modern science has proved the worthlessness of the plant, but the druids gave it credit for great curative and magical virtues. It was held in high repute as a remedy for epilepsy and convulsions, was used as a charm against evil spirits and was supposed to possess the power to preserve from poison.

The old custom of kissing under the mistletoe has descended from feudal times and is variously accounted for. "According to popular tradition," says Charles Dudley Warner, "the maid who was not kissed under a bough of mistletoe at Christmas would not be married during the following year. [The origin of this custom may probably be traced to the fact that formerly mistletoe was considered a certain cure for sterility. It still is popularly believed to possess emmenagogue properties.] There was once a notion that its heathen origin should exclude it from Christmas decorations, but this found no favor with the young people of any period. On the contrary, they took good care that it should be hung, and that it should have plenty of berries. The ceremony under it was not duly performed unless a berry was picked off with each kiss, and consequently the supply of berries determined the number of kisses." The berries were preserved for good luck by the maiden kissed, and when the berries were all plucked the privilege ceased.

The name mistletoe is derived from two Greek words, and means "the thief of the trees." [The German name is "mistel," and this seems to be derived from "mist" (dung), the "mistelfluk" (mistle thrush), by whom the plant was supposed to be propagated by depositing the seeds with his excrements on the limbs of trees, being so named because of its dirty habits. The Anglo-Saxon "mistelta" and the Icelandic "misteltein" are equivalent to mistletwig.] Nor is it a slanderous misnomer. Though it is portrayed on Christmas cards in company with texts and hymns, the mistletoe is a thief, a parasite which sponges upon more industrious plants instead of grubbing an honest living with its own roots.

The translucent white berries which bend its branches are filled with an exceedingly sticky jelly, and this vegetable glue enables the seed to cling to the tree which chance has selected as host and victim. When the berry begins to sprout the tiny root always turns toward the branch with a kind of instinct. If the seed sprouts on the lower side of the limb it reaches up; if it germinates on the upper side it extends down. This root pierces the bark, and then the mistletoe begins to draw its nourishment from the living tissues of the tree.

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There are four hundred species of mistletoe, most of them natives of the tropics. Some deck themselves with a profusion of showy flowers. One sort grows in the United States and is abundant south of the Ohio river. Florists' windows at the holiday season display both the Native and the imported mistletoe. The native species bears a profusion of thin yellowish-green leaves and white berries. The English plant has only a few pairs of grayish-green leaves and is thickly studded with pearly fruit. Hence, the latter will be preferred by sentimental youth, however republican, on general principles. The flowers of both sorts are small and inconspicuous and interesting only to the infatuated botanist. Probably our respect for the undeserving mistletoe is a heritage from our druid-taught British ancestors.

The holly's spiky leaves suggested to devout fancy Christ's crown of thorns and the red berries His blood. From these comparisons and from its frequent use in church decorations the plant has gained its name— holly, or holy tree. "Every holly bough and lump of berries with which you adorn your houses is a piece of natural piety as well as beauty, and will enable you to relish the green world of which you show yourselves not forgetful." Thus taught an ancient divine in one of his Christmas sermons. And another: "So our churches and our houses, decked with bayes and rosemary, holly and ivy, and other plants which are always green, winter and summer, signify and put us in mind of His Deity; that the Child who was born was God and man, who should spring up like a tender plant, should always be green and flourish and live forever more."

In old church calendars Christmas Eve is marked templa exornantur (the temples are adorned). Holly, ivy, rosemary, bay and laurel furnished the favorite trimmings from the earliest times.

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