mistletoeI think I’m finally getting the hang of “the Holidays” as they concern this column. It hasn’t been easy. For years the Holidays not only crept up on me, but tippy-toed right past me as I sat, snoozing peacefully, at my desk. Last year I actually managed to rouse myself in time to explain several “holiday words,” including “mistletoe,” but since two people have asked me about “mistletoe” just in the last week, I’ve decided to repeat my explanation of that word.

Like many people, I have a dismaying inability to remember jokes, but I heard a joke when I was about 12 years old which is so utterly stupid that I’ve never forgotten it. Ready? OK, if athletes get athlete’s foot, what do astronauts get? That’s right — mistletoe.

Although the American Heritage Dictionary defines “mistletoe” rather dismissively as “a Eurasian parasitic shrub,” most of us view this innocent little plant in a warmer light. Mistletoe was an element in European mid-winter celebrations for thousands of years before the advent of Christianity, and like many “pagan” traditions, mistletoe was eventually integrated into Christmas tradition, although it has no religious significance in itself. Today a small sprig of mistletoe is often hung in a doorway, tradition dictating that anyone caught under the sprig must submit to a kiss. Those pagan traditions certainly have staying power — even as I write this, a commercial on the radio promises that a haircut from a certain “salon” will provoke reactions from the opposite sex equivalent to wearing a “mistletoe hat.”

Tracing the origin of “mistletoe” is a bit of a problem — it’s a very old word, and all its precursors meant “mistletoe” as well. But if we go all the way back to Old English, there are some hints. “Mistle” came from the same root that gave us “mist,” and “tan” meant “twig,” giving us “twig of the mist” as a root meaning. “Twig of the mist” — the fact that one little word, thousands of years old, could contain such a beautiful image is a wonderful gift in itself, don’t you think?


[originally published in the 1990s]


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