Hang up your mistletoe and pucker up

Hang up your mistletoe and pucker up By Bob Karolevitz I've got some good news and some bad news about mistletoe.

The good news about the Christmas "kissing plant" is that it's an acceptable excuse for holiday smooching. The bad news is: it can lead to marriage.

In case Phyllis reads this, I'm kidding about the latter statement, of course. On the other hand, among the myths of mistletoe, that amorous custom really was credited with helping shy men and fair maidens get together in eventual connubial bliss.

Actually there is almost more lore and legend about mistletoe than there is about Santa Claus. For eleven months it's just a parasitic pest, but each December it emerges as part of the traditional trappings of Yuletide, hung in doorways and from chandeliers for osculation purposes.

Seventeenth century Englishmen supposedly came up with the kissing bit, but before that, mistletoe � especially that which grew on oak trees � was considered a sacred plant by the ancient Celts of Europe and the British Isles. I suppose you can get this kind of information from the Internet, but in case you don't have a modem, I'll fill you in on a little history.

Druids were the priests of the Celts, and according to the encyclopedists, they reserved the privilege of climbing oak trees to cut down the holy plant. It is said that they used gold knives for the harvesting and that white cloths were spread under the trees to catch the white-berried sprigs which were not supposed to touch the ground.

Legend also has it that the harvest was hauled out of the forest by two white bulls which had never been harnessed before � but I've got a little trouble believing that.

The Druids then concocted a strong brew from the mistletoe berries containing a sex hormone which apparently stimulated libido long before the pill of current conversation was introduced. (Incidently, don't try making any of that stimulating tea because the berries are poisonous, which may be one of the reasons we don't have Celts any more.)

For them, mistletoe seemed to have other magic qualities, too. They displayed sprigs of it in their homes to ward off evil, and they hung it over baby cradles to protect infants from being carried away by fairies.

The Roman savant, Pliny the Elder (or was it his nephew, Pliny the Younger?) wrote that the Celts also used mistletoe medicinally to cure ulcers and epilepsy. So did the Etruscans who complicated the process by insisting that the potent parasite had to be gathered during certain phases of the moon.

In the mid-1600s and English herbalist named Nicholas Culpeper noted that mistletoe "cures falling sickness, apoplexy and palsy very speedily, not only to be inwardly taken, but to be hung at the neck."

There are lots of other mistletoe tales, and even the Scandinavians get into the act. According to their ancient mythology, Frigga, the goddess of the sky, was responsible for the kissing custom because she declared the plant to be "the emblem of love."

Frankly, I think the Norwegians have enough going at Christmas-time with lutefisk and lefse, but Phyllis can put up a sprig of mistletoe if she'd like.

I'd hate to think that eating has completely replaced kissing.

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