Missing the mistletoe

Editorial Notebook

December 23, 2006|By Bill Thompson

Here's what's wrong with the world today: Not enough people are kissing underneath the mistletoe.

The festive use of the humble mistletoe dates to old European beliefs. Some ancient cultures vested the plant's dark green leaves and waxy, cream-hued berries with mystical powers of good fortune and fertility, which probably ushered in the custom of couples bussing beneath a small sprig dangling from a doorway. The tradition used to be as much a part of Christmas celebrations in America as socks hung from the fireplace mantle or cookies and milk left out for the arrival of the jolly fat man.

But our unscientific survey of garden nurseries and florist shops brings the sad news that mistletoe - the genuine stuff that sprouts high up in the bark of hardwood trees -isn't much in demand anymore. It may be that, like Christmas trees, many holiday decorators prefer the durability and efficiency of the artificial kind. It may be that families worry that their children and pets might ingest the poisonous berries.

Eggnog, another potentially toxic substance, still seems to be popular. It may be that mistletoe isn't cheap - a small piece can cost a couple dollars. Or it may be that people simply regard the convention as too silly, so ... yesteryear.

Whatever the reasons, mistletoe has not been the hottest selling item among the offerings Benjamin Franklin Molock spread out recently on the sidewalk next to his pick up truck in downtown Cambridge. Mr. Molock is a local handyman who does yardwork and cuts firewood. But come December, he disappears into the Dorchester County forests where he gathers armfuls of holly and pine, which he fashions into wreathes, ropes and other pretty configurations.

He's been at this for 50 years, and he's one of the town's most familiar faces. But at age 86, Mr. Molock, who sits inside his truck smoking cigarettes and taking an occasional sip from a bottle of Pepto-Bismol while waiting for shoppers, believes that this might be his final year in the greens business. Like many Eastern Shore towns, Cambridge is changing with the influx of newcomers. Old storefronts feature art galleries, boutiques with apparel you'd never see on a waterman's wife and restaurants with imported beer on tap. There's a new energy in town. Still, when the likes of Frank Molock fade away, something of value will be lost forever.

When he was younger, Mr. Molock says, he'd scramble up a tree to fetch mistletoe. He doesn't climb much anymore and relies on friends or a long pole to knock the boughs loose. It's not hard to spot mistletoe. After the tree leaves fall in cold weather, it stands out against the background of the sky. Most of the clumps growing in Dorchester are about the size of a softball, but there are many so big that they could easily fill a bushel basket. The one method Mr. Molock never used to harvest mistletoe is by shooting it down with a shotgun. That's still the preference for most folks around Dorchester. Mistletoe is a parasite and often grows high in trees - easily 30 or 40 feet above the ground - because that's where birds deposit the seeds. A practical man, Mr. Molock says with authority that blasting away at mistletoe can knock off the berries. And you can't sell mistletoe if it doesn't have the berries.

An exception to the berry rule was a customer who only cared for the leaves. He said he boiled them in water to make a tea to help ease his rheumatism. Mr. Molock says he hasn't seen that fellow in a while.

Requests for mistletoe may be down, but some people go out of their way to get some. Anthony Horne, who lives outside Cambridge, was roused one recent morning by a loud knocking on his door. A motorist from Pennsylvania was passing by and had spied the large clumps of mistletoe high in the tree in Mr. Horne's front yard. Could he have some? the driver inquired. Sure, Mr. Horne said, but there's no easy way to reach it. No problem, said the man, who promptly whipped out a pair of tree-climbing spikes.

At least someone's kissing under the mistletoe this holiday.

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