Dear Loyal Watchers, Interested Visitors, and Confused Passersby,
The holiday season has befallen us once again, and I, ever the one to partake in Christmastide merriment, have already begun turning my attention towards bestrewing my domicile and person with evidence of my enjoyment of the holidays.
As I wandered the halls of a major retail outlet the other day I was surprised to see mounting evidence that there is some very real confusion about what "mistletoe" exactly is.
Namely, I saw a bunch of ornaments that looked a lot like this:
Technical Note: I'm a Bills fan, not a Packers fan. It's very similar, except with more shame, desperations, and less cheese.
So, what's wrong with this picture? Well, let's get something straight... that is not mistletoe!
Yup, there seems to be a growing unawareness of what actually constitutes "mistletoe". It's not hard to understand why. When is the last time that you actually saw anybody kiss under a sprig of mistletoe? As we move farther and farther away from our agrarian roots, identifying plants and their purposes is something that people have a harder and harder time with.
So, let's review what we're dealing with here.
First off, the plant that people are commonly mis-identifying as mistletoe is actually holly. Both are associated with the ancient holidays that predate Christmas, and which became part of Christmas traditions when the new holiday supplanted the old one in ancient Britain and Normandy.
This is holly. Say "Hi!":
It's hard being a deciduous evergreen.
Note the ragged leaves and red berries.
Evolution hasn't been kind to holly. The subspecies is the only surviving member of the family Aquifoliaceae, so the poor thing deserves more respect that to pitch-hit for mistletoe. </span>
In pre-Christian Europe, the Druids often wore wreaths of holly during the winter solstice holidays. In Ancient Rome, early Christians took to decorating their homes with holly, as it was a symbol of Saturn. That way if any pagan was in a prosecutorial mood, they could point to the holly. But, in actuality, they were applying their own meaning to its colors, red for Christ's blood shed on the cross, green for eternal life.
As Christianity took root, and the new holiday of Christmas emerged, holly made its way into the new celebration. Hence, that's why its part of Christmas decorations to this day.
It's also the wood used in Harry Potter's wand, so show some deference, damn it!
Now, let's move on to what mistletoe actually is!
In one word? Nasty.
It turns out that the plant that is actually mistletoe is actually a parasite. Yes, even the world for flora is not without its life-sucking fiends, and mistletoe is right on up there with the rest of the scumbags.
Mistletoe comes from the order Santalales, the famed jerk-plant order, and goes about its day by burrowing into the xylem and phloem of perfectly innocent trees with interesting (disgusting) nanotubes called hastorium. These allow it to mooch off the host plant without giving anything back like that one guy who came to a party at your house that one time and asked if he could stay the night 'cause he thought he was drunk and who stayed the next day chatting with your friends and slept over the next night without you realizing it and the next thing you know its two months later, everyone is calling him your "roommate", he hasn't paid a dollar for anything, and there's something being brewed in your shower but you don't know what it is.
Anywho, mistletoe has elliptical leaves and white berries.
Pictured: Jerk-plant with jerky elliptical leaves and jerky white berries.
The Norse had a thing for mistletoe. There's two competing theories as to why. The first had to do with the berries looking like the tears of the goddess Frigga. The other has to do with the accidental castration of their god Balder.
This journal will go with the former.
Anywho, as a symbol of love, joy, peace, and other stuff we don't normally associate with our stereotypical view of Viking Norsemen, the white berries of the mistletoe jerk-plant found their way into the new Christmas holiday as a symbol of purity.
You fools! You've fallen for its wiles! Don't blame me if you wake up with hastoriums burrowing into your flesh!
So, out of all of the pagan pre-Christian winter solstice traditions in those fiddly bits of Europe closest to the Atlantic and Arctic that made the leap into the new Christian holiday of Christmas, how did noble, reliable, and truthful holly and jerky, jerkish, jerkedy mistletoe get the pass?
Well, they are both similar... if we look past the whole parasite thing, that is. They come from the same general area (which is why the tradition isn't part of Christmas celebrations in Latin America or Asia). They both were part of pre-Christmas beliefs. Their berries are both toxic and taste horrible.
Oh! Most important! They are both evergreens!
Yup, holly keeps its green shine all through the darkness of winter, and mistletoe keeps slurping the life out of the host it has afflicted itself upon without pausing to stop.
So, by the default setting of both being green in deep winter, they have become symbols of the holiday!
Symbols that are often confused for one another.
Seriously! Even the TVTropes Page for "Under the Mistletoe"
has an image that shows holly instead of mistletoe! It even says that "Christ's cross was made from mistletoe" when it means holly. Mistletoe, ever the jerky-jerk, can't even be bothered to grow a wooden stem!
Anyone who wants to correct the TVTropes page will have my personal thanks.
That's holly, Cadance! ITTTTTtttt'ssss hhhhoooolllllllllllyyyy!
A Google Image search for mistletoe comes up with nearly as many clipart images of holly as actual mistletoe, much to my further chagrin.
Furthermore, do a search here on DA for "mistletoe". How many images come up actually being holly? So... yeah.
And, finally, ask yourself... did you know the difference before you read this?
We've now explored the difference between holly and mistloe. Now, equipped with such knowledge, I fully expect you to inform your favorite DA artists as to why they should know the difference between two plants. We wouldn't want them to miss out on the opportunity to properly invoke a castrated Viking god, after all.
Or, more happily, to just help them get the tradition right, and to explore the peace, love, and joy that the Christmas images have brought to us all here on DA.