CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Today, as you unwrap presents from under the Christmas tree, or sneak a kiss under the mistletoe, or raise a glass over the poinsettia centerpiece, know that these Christmas plants are all steeped in lore from across the centuries.
According the extension agents at Iowa State University, the Christmas tree is a tradition that some historians believe began in Germany in the 17th century. Others say the primitive cultures of Northern Europe believed that evergreen trees possessed godlike powers and the evergreen tree also symbolized immortality. The Germanic peoples would bring evergreen boughs into their homes during winter to ensure the protection of the home and the return of life to the snow-covered forest. Eventually the evergreen tree was transformed into a Christian symbol as the faith spread through Europe.
Others believe that the Christmas tree began in the 16th century with Martin Luther. According to the legend, Martin Luther was inspired by the beauty of evergreens one Christmas Eve. He cut down a tree, brought it home and decorated it with candles. (I'm partial to this one!)
The first record of a Christmas tree is in Strasburg, Germany, in 1604. German immigrants and Hessian soldiers hired by the British to fight the colonists during the American Revolution brought the Christmas tree tradition to the United States.
Mistletoe is a semiparasitic plant with small, leathery leaves and small, white berries. Mistletoe plants manufacture their own food, but must obtain water and minerals from the host plant.
According to the Alabama extension service, American mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum) can be found growing in deciduous trees from New Jersey and southern Indiana southward to Florida and Texas. It is the state flower of Oklahoma. Mistletoe sold during the holiday season is gathered in the wild. Most mistletoe is harvested in Oklahoma and Texas.
Traditions involving mistletoe date back to ancient times. Druids believed that mistletoe could bestow health and good luck. Welsh farmers associated mistletoe with fertility. A good mistletoe crop foretold a good crop the following season. Mistletoe was also thought to influence human fertility and was prescribed to individuals who had problems bearing children.
Mistletoe also has been used in medicine. It has been used as treatment for pleurisy, gout, epilepsy, rabies and poisoning. Mistletoe also played a role in a superstition concerning marriage. It was believed that kissing under the mistletoe increased the possibility of marriage in the upcoming year.
Mistletoe will cause illness if ingested.