On Christmas Eve, Jon read a story in The New York Times about new research into the evolution of mistletoe, the popular evergreen plant that has long been associated with fertility and festivity. As it turns out, we discovered our campsite was positioned just beneath a mistletoe plant, which prompted a quick kiss for luck. No one knows the origin of kissing under mistletoe. It may have started with the ancient Greeks, who kissed under the plants during harvest festivals. The Romans took the practice a step further by allowing lascivious behavior under mistletoe. First-century Celtic druids were known to decorate their homes with mistletoe for luck, as its growth on certain oak trees they thought possessed magical powers imparted mystical properties into the plant. In Norse mythology, Loki tricked the blind god Hodur into murdering his own twin brother Baldur with an arrow made of mistletoe wood – the only plant to which Baldur was vulnerable. Some versions of the story have Baldur’s mother Frigga, the goddess of love and marriage, weeping tears that turn into white mistletoe berries, which bring Baldur back to life, making the plant a symbol of peace and love. In Western Christianity, mistletoe became associated with Christmas as a decoration under which lovers were expected to kiss, as well as protection from witches and demons. The tradition that arose in Victorian England dictated that a man was allowed to kiss any woman standing beneath mistletoe, and that bad luck would befall anyone who refused a kiss.
As fascinating as the folklore and mythology around mistletoe might be, we’re actually more intrigued by the plant itself.
Mistletoe is a parasite – it steals water and nutrients from trees. Technically, it is a “hemiparasite,” which means that it can generate some of its own resources through photosynthesis – it just needs that energetic kick from the sun to fuel the biological siege and subsequent invasion of the tree. It must breach the tree’s defenses in order to complete its life-cycle. Once inside the host, the vast majority of the mistletoe’s energy requirements are met by resources stolen from the host tree.
Most mistletoe seeds are spread by birds, which eat the berries and defecate on tree branches. Whereas most plants grow towards the light, and use gravity to inform their growth patterns, mistletoe does its own thing, and grows away from the light (towards the tree). It also ignores gravity so that it can infect the tree in any direction.
Although parasites are by nature extremely selfish in their actions, mistletoe does serve a useful purpose: It attracts all sorts of critters, from bees and other insects that pollinate its flowers, to mammals and birds who live in its branches and get wintertime nourishment from its berries and leaves.
So what does all this have to do with Christmas 2020? Well, it strikes us that we’re about to turn the page on a chapter of our nation’s history that we would just as soon forget. President Trump has been like a parasitic plant, selfishly sucking the life out of the body politic. Like enabling songbirds, his supporters have been spreading his lies by defecating on everyone around them. Meanwhile, Trump has turned away from the light of truth and the gravity of integrity, infecting the nation to its roots. And in the same way that mistletoe provides some positive benefits, Trump’s presidency has had some positive impact on our nation.
His failed attempt to overturn the Affordable Care Act has actually moved us closer to guaranteed health care. His well-known moral failings and widespread support among Christian conservatives effectively laid to rest the idea that a Republican candidate has to be a moral conservative to win the presidency, opening the door for a wider, more qualified field of candidates. His early investment in a coronavirus vaccine development and a distribution plan resulted in a true medical miracle, but it didn’t make up for the fact that he downplayed the severity of the pandemic, held numerous campaign and White House events that ignored social distancing and mask guidelines issued by his own administration. His war on the Constitution, our right to vote, freedom of the press, many other fundamental American rights, and the truth itself actually made us more aware, more engaged, and more determined.
To everything there is a season. It’s time to take down the mistletoe.