Friday, December 18, 2015

Another Baltic Christmas - Day 18 and mistletoe

There are three plants that are most often associated with Christmas; the tree (usually a fir or spruce), holly and mistletoe. One can imagine the reason for this is that all three are evergreen, meaning they stay green throughout the winter, and so provide fragrance and color as holiday decorations. Of these three, the tree is the most common Christmas symbol in the Baltics - in fact Rīga was the home of the first Christmas tree. There is no native holly (the sharp green leaves are mostly recognized from pictures and movies), but mistletoe – puuvõõrik in Estonian, amalas in Lithuanian and in Latvian, āmulis, now this is an interesting story.

The hemiparasitic plants attach to the branches of a tree or shrub through which they absorb water and nutrients from the host plant. While the European mistletoe Viscum album makes its home in hardwoods, it rarely grows in oaks - quite the opposite of North American Phoradendron leucarpum, which actually prefers oak trees. I had never really noticed the plant before moving down South, where the giant green balls are easily identified in the winter in the southern oaks without their winter leaves. While living in Georgia I would borrow a friend's 22 to harvest enough each December to make a few decorations; shooting down one of these balls is much harder than it looks, as you have to hit the main stem to dislodge it from its perch (some prefer to use a shotgun instead - I guess I was up for the challenge of target shooting). Here in South Carolina we've luckily found some every year in storm-felled branches, and this year I discovered pruned trees in a shopping center where the mistletoe was growing within arm's reach.

While it is not certain why mistletoe is associated with Christmas as a decoration under which lovers are expected to kiss, it is clear that the plant has played an important role in European mythology. The ancient Greeks supposedly believed that the old Gods had once been offended by the plant, and so condemned it to have to look on while pretty girls were being kissed. In Norse Mythology, Loki tricked the blind god Hodur into murdering his brother Balder with an arrow made of mistletoe, the plant becoming a symbol of peace and friendship to compensate for its part in the murder. And for the Druids mistletoe was regarded as sacred; it was believed that it could cure all diseases, heal wounds and protect you from evil. The mistletoe that grew on oak trees was considered particularly strong in these qualities, and women who wanted to conceive would wear it on a belt or their wrist. Ancient Swiss legends tell of “thunder brooms,” which supposedly occurred on trees struck by lightning but more than likely were what we today call “witches’ brooms” - similar to the dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium species) of western North America, the dense masses of evergreen branching stems resemble a broom, and mythology attributes these plants with the ability to protect against magic and witchcraft. Decorating your home, inside and out, with mistletoe twigs or figures would drive out evil spirits and witches. As mistletoe is neither a tree nor a shrub and seemingly grows in the sky, it symbolizes freedom from any prohibitions and restrictions…

From the Middle Ages mistletoe has been associated with fertility and vitality, and by the 18th century it had become incorporated into Christmas celebrations around the world. It was in Victorian England that the tradition of kissing underneath the mistletoe was first recorded, dictating that a man was allowed to kiss any woman standing underneath mistletoe, and that bad luck would befall any woman who refused the kiss. In France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year's Day - Au gui l'An neuf. So, what about the Baltics, you ask…

photo source and tutorial for mistletoe ball: Southern Living

The Baltics are actually on the very northernmost edge of the range of European mistletoe (my sources said it doesn’t grow in Estonia), and so the various kissing/decorating traditions have never caught on. Because of the scarcity of the plant, it has actually been designated a rare and protected species in Latvia, partially because of the berry's importance to certain birds and mammals as a food source, but also as they provide nesting habitat to various bird species. In Latvia the fine for removing/harming mistletoe is two month’s pay – therefore hanging mistletoe boughs to kiss under won’t catch on as a tradition anytime soon. So remember this year, whether you harvest your mistletoe with a rifle or a pair of shears, if you live in the Baltics it's less expensive to stick to fir and spruce!

*Please remember that although mistletoe has supposed therapeutic uses, consumption of any part of the plant or drinking tea of the plant can result in sickness and possibly death. 

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