Mistletoe is the original "shit on a stick". "Mistel" is the Anglo-Saxon word for "dung," and "tan" is the word for "twig". So, mistletoe literally means "dung-on-a-twig". The common name of the plant is derived from the ancient belief that the plant grew from from bird droppings. This belief was related to the then-accepted principle that life could spring spontaneously from dung. It was observed in ancient times that mistletoe would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings.
The Druids considered the mistletoe to be sacred and believed it could cure illnesses, serve as an antidote against poisons, ensure fertility and protect against witchcraft. They also enforced the law that whenever enemies met under mistletoe in the forest, they had to lay down their arms and observe a truce until the next day. This could be the source of the custom of kissing under a ball of mistletoe, as leaders of opposing armies would often embrace under the plant as a sign of friendship and respect.
Others say that the custom was derived from the legend of Freya, Anglo-Saxon goddess of love, beauty and fertility. According to that legend, a man had to kiss any young girl who, without realizing it, found herself accidentally under a sprig of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling.
Kissing under a ball of mistletoe is a widespread custom, found in many European countries, Canada, and the Americas. In some areas a kiss under the mistletoe is interpreted as a promise to marry as well as a prediction of happiness and long life. In France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year’s Day: "Au gui l’An neuf" (Mistletoe for the New Year).
There is a down side to all this smooching and lovey-dovey stuff however. Mistletoe poisoning happens far more frequently than most people would imagine this time of year. Mistletoe generally has whitish berries which can be tempting, but deadly. That's right...mistletoe poisoning can be fatal. The toxic amines are found in all parts of the plant, but the highest concentration is in the leaves.
The symptoms of mistletoe poisoning are similar to most poisonings; body weakness, blurred vision, nausea and abdominal pain, diarrhea, drowsiness and even hallucinations. A poison control center or a doctor should definitely be called, and vomiting should NOT be induced unless they specify it. Often mistletoe poisoning will warrant a trip to the emergency room where the patient can be monitored and the poison removed. The crucial period is the first 24 hours after ingestion. Virtually all fatalities caused by mistletoe poisoning have occurred during that time frame. If the first day is survived, prognosis for a full recovery is excellent.
Mistletoe has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties. It was used by the Druids and the ancient Greeks, and it appears in legend and folklore as a panacea. In the 16th century, mistletoe was used for treating epilepsy, and, subsequently, for a variety of nervous system disorders. Mistletoe in various forms has been used for hypertension, headache, menopausal symptoms, infertility, arthritis, and rheumatism. Interest in mistletoe as an anticancer drug began in the 1920s when extracts from the plant were found to kill cancer cells and stimulate the immune system. Mistletoe extracts are sold commercially to treat cancer in Europe and Asia, but haven't been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US yet, so aren't available in the US.