After a brisk winter storm or two in my area of the country, when the last of the tenacious rust-brown oak leaves have finally stopped clinging to the branches, a hawk-eyed hunter can usually spot clumps of mistletoe hanging high at the tops of oak trees. I spied some myself this week, as I drove home lost in thought on a gray afternoon.
The uninitiated might mistake the tangled clumps for dead branches or even a squirrel’s nest, but I knew better. When I was a teenager, our house sat on several wooded acres in middle Tennessee, God’s country. My parents sat on the back porch in the mornings drinking coffee and watching deer, turkey, and chipmunks shuffle through the leaves in the backyard. Somewhere towards mid-December every year, my brother or father would disappear into the woods with a shotgun in hand and return an hour or so later, pink-cheeked and smelling of the outdoors, to lay a tattered clump of mistletoe on the kitchen counter.
The only way to acquire the kissing sprig, which is actually a parasite to its host tree, is to blast it from the treetops with a well-aimed shotgun. Not very romantic. What is romantic, though, is my father snapping off a twig or two and cornering my mother at the kitchen sink, her hands in the dishwater. He’d hold the lime-green leaves above her head and lean in for a kiss, usually getting a soapy swat for his trouble.
I love many things about the holidays, but mistletoe memories rank right up there. When my husband and I were dating, I could always count on him sending me a note at school with a tiny sprig enclosed or dipping a gloved hand into his coat pocket at an opportune moment to pull out a red-ribboned bunch.
When the kids were small, they would often sit purposefully underneath the door frame where the mistletoe hung, their not-so-subtle indication that it was high time for some snuggles. As they grew, it became a game to see who would get caught there and have to submit, squirming, as mom planted a kiss on a grossed-out teenager’s cheek. Through some phases of their lives, I was resigned to only getting affection under Christmas duress.
That’s the beauty of mistletoe. It’s power to compel a kiss is an inarguable given, like midnight on New Year’s Eve or spin-the-bottle in middle school. For the most part, unless you’re trying to escape the creeper at the annual office party or drunk Uncle Edgar (and in that case, there most definitely is the right of refusal), those innocent green branches and white berries add a little Hallmark magic to the stress of the holidays. Even in the midst of an argument or an overdone schedule, mistletoe is the trump card. A peace-offering. A reminder of the things that really matter.
Real mistletoe is harder to find these days. Maybe the countryside is receding or maybe it’s just easier for guys to click “add to cart” at Christmas instead of tramping through the cold woods in search of a bit of old-fashioned romance. Fewer people live out in the country anymore, where you know how to dig for ginseng and can identify the scrapes on tree bark as those left by the antlers of rutting deer. And apparently it’s not polite to blast shotguns towards the treetops in suburban neighborhoods.
I haven’t had any real mistletoe in the house in a few years. The fake, plastic kind just isn’t the same. Maybe that’s why I had to stop and take a picture of the far away clusters I spotted by the interstate this week. I needed a reminder of a time when life was simpler and nothing made me happier than watching my mom and dad dance to the Christy Minstrels album in the kitchen after a soapy kiss. Since the real thing is hard to come by, I have a little sign posted on my kitchen windowsill, right above the sink, where it’s obvious when I’m doing the dishes.
I conjure my own mistletoe, metaphorically. There’s no sly evasion of the door frames anymore. The teenagers receive begrudged smooches without warning, and when the husband comes in from the cold, smelling of the outdoors, it’s an opportunity to gross out the aforementioned teenagers even more. (wink, wink*)
May your days be merry and bright!