(Anglo-Sax. misteltan, Ger. mistel; the tan of the Anglo-Saxon name means a tine or prong, a shoot of a tree; mistel is of uncertain etymology, but probably the same, in meaning at least, as the Latin viscus), a genus (Viscumn) of small parasitical shrubs of the natural order Loranthacce. This order is exogenous, and contains more than four hundred known species, mostly tropical and parasites. The leaves are entire, almost nerveless, thick and fleshy, and without stipules. The flowers of many species are showy. The calyx arises from a tube or rim, which sometimes assumes the appearance of a calyx, and is so regarded by many botanists; what others deem the colored calyx being viewed by them as a corolla of four or eight petals or segments. Within this are the stamens, as numerous as its divisions, and opposite to them. The ovary is one-celled, with a solitary ovule; the fruit one-seeded, generally succulent. The stems are dichotomous (i.e., divide by forking); the leaves are opposite, of a yellowish-green color, obovate-lanceolate, obtuse. The flowers are inconspicuous, and grow in small heads at the ends and in the divisions of the branches, the male and the female flowers on separate plants. The berries are about the size of currants, white, translucent, and full of a very viscid juice, which serves to attach the seeds to branches, where they take root when they germinate, the radicle always turning towards the branch, whether on its upper or under side. The mistletoe derives its nourishment from the living tissue of the tree on which it grows, and from which it seems to spring as if it were one of its branches.
Superstitious Use. — The mistletoe was intimately connected with many of the superstitions of the different branches of the Aryan race. In the Northern mythology, Baldur is said to have been slain with a mistletoe. Among the Celts the mistletoe which grew on the oak was in peculiar esteem for magical virtues. Traces of the ancient regard for the mistletoe still remain in some old English and German customs, as kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas. The British Druids are said to have had an extraordinary veneration for it, and that mainly because its berries as well as its leaves grow in clusters of three united to one stock, and, as is well known, they had a special veneration for the number three (comp. Vallancey, Grammar of the Irish Language). Stukeley (Medallic History of Carausius, 2:163 sq.), speaking of the Druids' festival, the Jul (q.v.), and the use of the mistletoe, relates as follows: "This was the most respectable festival of our Druids, called Yule-tide, when mistletoe, which they called all-heal (because used to cure disease),was carried in their hands, and laid on their altars, as an emblem of the salutiferous advent of Messiah... The custom is still preserved in the north, and was lately at York. On the eve of Christmas-day they carry mistletoe to the high altar of the cathedral, and proclaim a public and universal liberty, pardon, and freedom to all sorts of inferior and even wicked people at the gates of the city, towards the four quarters of heaven." See Brand, Popul. Antiquities of Great Britain, 1:521-4.