WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM MISTLETOE?
Often times during the Christmas season we talk about the Christmas tree and how it has become, for many, the centerpiece of inside Christmas decorating. Sometimes we even talk about the Poinsettia, probably the most famous of Christmas potted plants that adorn most every altar; a plant that can be purchased almost anywhere, from high end nurseries to Walmart. But a Christmas plant that we do not often talk about is Mistletoe. This morning we are going to correct this gross injustice.
Mistletoe received it’s name from second century Anglo-Saxons. In Old English, mistle is the word for dung, and tan is the word for twig. Mistletan gradually changed into Mistletoe. The name was given to this plant because the plant sprang to life from bird droppings on tree branches. Now, this might seem a little crude, but to the people of the first and second centuries it was a radiant sign of God’s power to bring life from death, and to create something beautiful from something ugly and useless.
In ancient times, mistletoe was viewed with awe. It was considered a miracle plant. During the harshest days of winter, when most everything else had died, this small, flowering, seemingly rootless plant thrived in the treetops. It offered beauty and color, together with life and hope, in an otherwise cold and dreary season.
Before the time of Christ, the early Greeks and Celts believed mistletoe was sacred. They taught that only God’s touch could bring a new plant out of winter’s dead wood and nourish it during the year’s most brutal days. For this reason, people of many different faiths have considered mistletoe a sacred and noble gift that represents life, hope, and security. Many early Christians believed it was the key to somewhat understanding the mind of God. They claimed that if you understood how mistletoe grew, why it survived and thrived during the winter season, as well as how it spread, you would better understand the Lord and your relationship with him.
It seems strange that this parasitic plant that literally sucks the life out of another living organism, could inspire such awe. Yet, mistletoe is radically different from most of nature’s other parasites. It is a beautiful flowering plant that flourishes during a time when all other living creatures fight for life. It is little wonder that ancient civilizations were so mystified by it.
Scandinavian warriors would actually stop fighting if they or their opposing soldiers suddenly found themselves under trees where mistletoe was growing. They believed that continuing a battle beneath a plant that God had given the world as a sign of life would dishonor him. Many other societies adopted this rule as well. Not only was mistletoe a sign of life and peace, it also became a symbol that demanded peace.
Superstition soon made it’s way into mistletoe symbolism. As it was a symbol of peace it also took on the role of protector. Mistletoe was cut from trees and put on the doors of homes and barns to ward off any enemies or threats. By the middle ages mistletoe was even placed over babies’ cribs to ward off illnesses and evil spirits.
Even though mistletoe leaves and berries are poisonous if ingested raw, they were diluted and used in medieval medicines. It was used in the treatment of epilepsy, tuberculosis, and even stroke. Today it is being studied in the fight against cancer.
As mistletoe was viewed a being able to ward off things that were undesirable, like like threats and illness, it also came to be viewed by some as an ultimate weapon. A Norse legend, for example, held that mistletoe, when shaped into an arrow, was the most powerful force in the world and could instantly bring down even the mightiest warrior. The only way a fallen soldier could be saved was if a loved one used mistletoe berries to restore his life.
As this legend of the restorative power of mistletoe spread to England, the plant became a symbol of love. If a couple passed under the plant, they would just have to stop and kiss. If they did, God was sure to bless them with everlasting love. To make sure this custom was not abused, the male was to pick one berry for each kiss. When the berries were gone, the kissing was suppose to stop.
By the time Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” in 1843, Christians had adopted mistletoe as a Christian symbol. Think about it. Jesus brought the promise of everlasting life into a dark and hopeless world. He was nailed to a tree as a willing sacrifice for our sins. But the chains of death could not hold him. Jesus sprang to life from the cold shadows of death on Easter morning. This plant, then, became a symbolic of life after death, of a faith that was so strong it could grow even the the midst of darkness, and of the peace that transcends human understanding.
Christians across Europe no longer were posting mistletoe on their doors to ward off evil spirits, but to show the world that they believed in the power of God’s love in Jesus. Because it survived and thrived in the toughest of times, it became symbolic of of one’s faith; a faith that would carry one through even through the most difficult of times.
For hundreds of years, people of faith who kissed under the mistletoe vowed to keep not only their love for each other strong, but their love for the Lord as well. It was symbolic of the Lord’s conquering love; a love that brought forth life even in death. In a way the early Greeks and Celts were correct. Mistletoe does give us some insight into God’s most important gift to the world, his Son, our Savior, Jesus.
Today, the Christian symbolism of peace, hope, faith, and life found in mistletoe has largely been lost. But, at lest, the message of love has remained. This is why it is so often mentioned in songs, movies, and TV shows; and why so many of us have in hanging in our homes at Christmas. Mistletoe does not just have to be the kissing plant. It’s historic symbolism teaches us much about the true meaning of Christmas, that perhaps can be reclaimed. From less than eloquent beginnings, mistletoe gives us a message of faith, hope, and love.