- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2001

Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Someone came, and kissed me there.
Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe);
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen and kissed me there.
Walter de la Mare, "Mistletoe"

At the tender age of 23, Phil Caruso was in Korea hunkered down on the front lines. It was cold and snowing hard. He heard the rumbling of a military jeep in the distance. Closer and closer it came, until it stopped near the young soldier.
What news could its passengers be bringing? It was toward the end of October 1953, and the Korean War was evolving into one of the bloodiest in history. The young Marine had been stationed in this distant and dangerous eastern Asian land 13 months.
He quickly learned the soldiers' mission. He will never forget that moment, the snowfall clouding his eyes and dampening his uniform as he stood at attention awaiting orders.
"They had come to get me because my time was up," Mr. Caruso says. "I was coming home. I was so happy, and I remember thinking, 'Gosh, I'll be home for Christmas,' and that's when I thought about the popular song."
Mr. Caruso, chatting from his fourth-generation, family-owned florist shop on M Street in northwest Washington, where plenty of mistletoe and hardy holiday greens are sold during this time of year, breaks out in song: "I'll home for Christmas … You can count on me … Please have snow and mistletoe … And presents on the tree … "
A ship transported Mr. Caruso back to the United States. The voyage at sea took 14 long days. "Even when I was on that ship, I kept thinking about and singing that song," he says.
Of that joyful Christmas, nearly 50 years ago, Mr. Caruso remembers something else getting a huge, long overdue kiss from his thrilled girlfriend Peg, whom he later married. The couple had five children, all of whom work at the bustling florist store.
With a warm holiday chuckle, Mr. Caruso says, "Now, I'm not singing about mistletoe, I'm selling it."


Mistletoe has long been associated with Christmas tradition, holiday romance and giddy, spirited fun. The unsuspecting are coaxed underneath a decorated sprig, usually suspended from an entranceway or foyer, for one reason: to steal a kiss. Catching someone off guard is half the fun.
Hanging mistletoe in the home during Christmastime is a warm way to welcome company. Having a herd of people smooch up a newly-arrived guest is equivalent to shoving a cup of spiked eggnog in their hand the minute they step through the door. It's a guaranteed icebreaker.
Garry Hardy, a salesman at Garden World of Virginia in Fairfax, has noticed that a lot more people are buying mistletoe this year. Aside from its being a Christmas family tradition, he says, the increase in sales might be related to the September 11 attacks on the United States.
"People are showing more compassion, more love for each other and more brotherly spirit," says Mr. Hardy, who admits to having stolen one or two kisses under the mistletoe during his time.
Mr. Hardy, seasoned at the mistletoe game, has some advice for his long-time and new mistletoe customers. "Try to stay away from Aunt Sue and stuff like that … people who are too loving … who squeeze your cheeks and the whole nine yards."
How did this passed-down tradition of nudging someone under a piece of suspended greenery for a kiss come about?
The mistletoe custom has many sources. Some historians say the ritual stems from something started by the Druids, a cluster of priestly types who hung out with the ancient Celts in Ireland, England and France.
These priests would trudge around the forests searching for sacred oak trees, where mistletoe grew. Once they found it, they would cut it down and distribute it throughout the villages, where the town folk thought the sprigs to possess magical charms.
Mistletoe was credited with bringing peace in Scandinavia. Enemies who found themselves under it were said to drop all weapons and call a truce for the day. Later in Scandinavia and England, it was fastened above entryways to catch people passing below. Peaceful wishes and a kiss were bestowed on the individual.
Like other time-honored traditions, mistletoe has come to symbolize many things. Over the centuries, the plant has received accolades for heaping good fortune on cows, frightening the dickens out of witches, enhancing fertility and, of all things, extinguishing fires.
The fire notion was drummed up by people who believed mistletoe appeared on trees by magic, a reasonable guess on the part of a civilization who knew nothing about horticulture or dependent plants like mistletoe that need other plants to survive. They believed that a cracking finger of lightning dotted the trees with mistletoe.

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant with little white berries that attaches itself and grows on trees, especially oaks. Birds unite the two. They eat the berries, flit off to another tree, leave their droppings and presto the seeds in the droppings take root. Birds also transfer the sticky seeds from their beaks, which they rub against the bark.
This method of propagation gave mistletoe an unsavory name during ancient times. People noticed that it would grow on a branch where birds had deposited their droppings. The Anglo-Saxon word for "dung" is "mistel"; thus the plant became widely known as "dung on a twig."
Mistletoe is not only for the birds. Alfred Millard, vice president of Behnke Nurseries in Largo, says pigs, too, are quite enamored with the smooth little berries and tough textured evergreen leaves.
When Mr. Millard first started with Behnke's 40 years ago, he would travel to a farm in North Carolina to harvest mistletoe for the nursery during the holiday season. Since it grows high in the trees, and is easy to spot, he would blast it loose with a shotgun. The pigs would hear the commotion, hightail it to the fallen mistletoe and eat what they could.
"We had to beat the pigs to it. It was green, and they had a fondness for it," Mr. Millard says, adding that mistletoe likes to grow more in the south than the north. Behnke's buys its mistletoe commercially, like other nurseries, from someone who collects it in the wild.
"I was just in North and South Carolina and saw it everywhere," Mr. Millard said. "It grows high up in the leafless trees. It's nice and green. It's all throughout the South, but you do see some in Southern Maryland."
Oklahoma likes mistletoe, too. It's the state flower.

Since most people who reside in the Beltway communities and Washington have neither the time nor inclination to tromp through the woods scouting out what they guess to be mistletoe, the best course is to head to the local nursery or florist and buy it from the experts.
These facilities are brimming with Christmas greenery, roping, wreaths and lush holiday mistletoe waiting to be brought home and hung above a doorway. Most mistletoe is sold fresh in bunches of 4- to 5-inch sprigs. The price usually starts around $3 and can rise depending on the packaging and whether or not it is decorated with a ribbon.
Because mistletoe is fragile, it should be purchased as close to Christmas Day or that special party as possible. The fresher the better, nursery personnel say. Also, keep it away from children and pets. It can cause stomach discomfort and perhaps be fatal.
"The problem with mistletoe is that it doesn't have a long shelf live," says Larry Hurley, a horticulturist at Behnke's. "It usually doesn't hold up well in the house. Misting it is your best bet. That will keep it fresher than anything else."
Mr. Hurley recommends hanging fresh mistletoe. Why? "If you use plastic mistletoe, you'll get insincere kisses."
Meadows Farms Nurseries, with locations in Maryland and Virginia, has found a middle ground between fresh and artificial or plastic mistletoe, the latter of which makes many a holiday decorator cringe and reach for the spirits.
"We sell dried mistletoe," says Mary Jo Brown, who works at the Fairfax store. "It's been preserved by taking the moisture out of it. Therefore, it will last longer in the home." The nursery sells its mistletoe tied in a red velvet ribbon.

Be it sprigs of mistletoe offset by a sliver of red, white or gold ribbon or woven through a kissing ball hanging from the ceiling, this good-humored and inexpensive Christmas tradition, embraced by young and old, is guaranteed to bring merriment and goodwill to any holiday festivity.
"Some say kissing under the mistletoe brings love back in the family, ends grievances and brings people together," says C.C. Meinhardt, of Brandywine, Md., who, with her husband, Woody, is passing on the tradition to their daughters Ashley, Natalie and Cylinda.
Mrs. Meinhardt has a collection of Christmas books showcasing holiday traditions that she places around the family's home each December. One book features a poem called "Mistletoe" by Walter de la Mare.
"I hang my mistletoe in our foyer every year," Mrs. Meinhardt says. "Ever since I was a little girl, I remember my mother hanging mistletoe in the foyer, and we would kiss each other under it on Christmas Eve when the family would get together."
Leave it to the younger generation to find someplace other than an entranceway to hang their mistletoe. Chris Simpson, a manager at the Meadows Farms Nursery store in Falls Church, has designed some mistletoe hats for his crew.
"One cashier here needs a girlfriend, so I made him a hat for good luck," Mr. Simpson says. Carl Gaston, the recipient of that gesture, can be seen behind the cash register sporting a knit ski cap with mistletoe dangling off of it.
"I don't think it's working," Mr. Gaston says. "I think it only works if you've already got somebody." He admits, though, that the holiday hat has brought him plenty of laughs from appreciative customers and coworkers.
Stephen Caruso, one of Phil's sons, says many people wait until the last week before Christmas to buy their mistletoe from his family's florist shop because it perishes so quickly. But others are parked at the front door as soon as December rolls around.
The store has already been flooded by the M Street/ Connecticut Avenue crowd, office workers rushing in to buy mistletoe for the office party, husbands wanting a few sprigs to take home to their wives, and students from George Washington and Georgetown universities fresh from finals and ready to celebrate the season.
"They like to party down there, too, and mistletoe makes it a good occasion to kiss somebody," Stephen Caruso says, referring to the newly liberated students who are done with fall semester.
His father, Phil, readying for the busiest week for mistletoe sales, adds, "It's a nice way to say, 'How about a kiss?' "

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