When it comes to gems the hidden ones are often stories, not stones. Welcome to Demystified, where we look beyond the jewelry box, past our closets, and into the depths of our most cherished possessions to reveal their cross-cultural significance.
The holiday season is that delectable, best-for-last slice of the annual pie sometimes served with a side of squall and always topped with tradition. We may love the advent calendar countdowns, matching onesies, and Mariah Carey ballads just as much as the next eggnog-guzzling nut, but we're hitting pause on the festivities to find out why being urged to kiss someone if you've stumbled under a parasitic little plant known as the mistletoe is a thing. Tiny as it might be, the plant has a layered history chronicled in legends from Norse, Greek, Roman, Christian, and Druidic mythology — many of which have contributed to the blossoming of this sometimes awkward Yuletide ritual.
"Due to the links with sex, it doesn’t take too much imagination to see how a kissing tradition has grown up around the plant," says Simon Costin, director of the Museum of British Folklore and the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. To the Celts, he explains, mistletoe berries were known as the semen of the thunder god while ancient Greeks referred to them as oak sperm. In the Middle Ages, decorations called kissing boughs were made from holly-covered hoops with a sprig of mistletoe tied below. By the 18th and 19th centuries, the plant became a novel way for people to steal a kiss and predict who their future partners might be at Christmas — but with limitations. For each peck, a berry was removed. No more berries, no more kisses.
But the mistletoe is far more than the decorative fixture it's become known as today and can actually be extraordinarily powerful depending on where you get it from. There are over 1,500 species of mistletoe, some of which are toxic and can cause blurred vision, vomiting, and even cardiac arrest (and here we thought compulsory public holiday smooching was enough to induce feelings of nausea). In Norse mythology, it was a symbol of peace and friendship, and the plant has been used medicinally in Europe for centuries when treating epilepsy, infertility, hypertension, and arthritis. In recent years, according to Costin, it has even been integrated into clinical trials for cancer treatment albeit not so successfully. "Although some trials indicated that mistletoe improved survival or quality of life," he says, "almost all of the trials had major weaknesses that raise doubts about their findings."
The varied meaning and functions of the mistletoe explain why you can find it crawling along the border of a dainty stationery set as well as in jewelry boxes and on the ingredient list for luxe immunity-boosting droplets. So even if, like us, you'll never be on board with the whole pushy kissing custom, we urge you not to entirely disregard this compelling form of greenery. Ahead, discover our roundup of unexpected mistletoe products that we promise won't result in any unwanted physical contact.
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