Mistletoe and MS

It’s Christmas once again, folks, and that means breaking out the egg nog, the electric Santa that plays the saxophone and shimmies to “Jingle Bells,” fresh pine boughs and candy canes, and yes, time to hang the mistletoe.

You think kissing under a cluster of berries and leaves is too corny? Okay, so maybe you’d like to know the darker side of mistletoe, that the plant is actually a parasite that infiltrates the bark of hardwood trees and feeds off their water and nutrients, sometimes killing the trees in the process. And as if that weren’t bad enough, every part of the plant and its berries is toxic to humans and possibly fatal if eaten. Ick. How could something so pretty be so destructive?

Leave it to ancient cultures to impose meaning, ritual and purpose on the natural world, mistletoe being no exception.

An Old Norse legend from around the 8th century chronicles the sun god, Balder, as having a dream of his own death. His mother, Frigga, goddess of love and beauty, becomes frantic and believes that if her son dies, the earth will die. She appeals to the four elements—earth, wind, fire, and water—as well as to all the plants and animals—not to kill Balder. But Balder’s enemy, Loki, finds a loophole in Frigga’s request. Mistletoe, being a parasitic plant, has no roots of its own and therefore doesn’t belong on the don’t-kill-Balder list. Loki fashions a poison dart made of mistletoe and has someone shoot it at Balder, killing him. Despite Frigga’s pleas to the elements to bring Balder back from the dead, they fail. When Frigga weeps, her tears turn the red mistletoe berries to white, restoring Balder’s life. Frigga is so happy to have her son back that she changes mistletoe’s bad reputation to a good one, and kisses everyone who walks under the mistletoe in heartfelt gratitude.

But the story of maternal love transforming the reputation of a poisonous plant into a healing herb will be displaced by the relatively modern themes of romantic love, lust, and happiness.

During the Middle Ages, mistletoe was associated with fertility and vitality, but not until the 19th century was it first recorded as being used to kiss under during Christmas. It was a flirty, mildly risqué little superstition for Victorian, sexually repressed young people whose hormones were jumping upstream like salmon during mating season. As part of the story goes, if a married couple kisses under the mistletoe, they’ll have good luck—and if they don’t do it, they can expect odious things to befall them. And while we’re on the subject of punitive fallout, if a single woman doesn’t get a smack on the kisser under the sprig, she’s doomed to spinsterhood for another year. But, what if her great uncle Percy kisses her? No matter. She is supposed to slip some mistletoe under her pillow. That way, she’ll dream of her Prince Charming and breathlessly await his arrival. The wise girl will also hang wolf bane and garlic around her bed, lest she dream about the Prince of Darkness and wind up donating to his blood bank. But that’s another story.

Kissing under the mistletoe is an equal opportunity symbol for making merry—and making skin contact. It requires crossing the comfort zone of physical space and getting close to another person. Many of us who sport broken, semi-numb bodies are likely not accustomed to that intimate a touch, or perhaps we avoid it all year because it might hurt. I have felt some of those things in years past, but this year I’m going to take a gander and plant one on somebody’s pie hole who would least expect it. Just think of how my vital signs would surge! Blood rushing to my lips and face, my heart beating faster, dopamine and adrenaline calling in reinforcements, not to mention the giddiness I’d feel from catching somebody off-guard and embarrassing both of us. What delicious fun.

‘Tis the season to be merry!

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