A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Mistletoe kissing origins? Why do worms surface during rain? (cont'd)

January 6, 1995

Dear Cecil:

Where did the practice of kissing under the mistletoe arise? Mistletoe is a fungus, for God's sake.

Cecil replies:

What is your problem with funguses? Some of my best friends are funguses. Fungi. Whatever. Besides, mistletoe isn't a fungus. It is a parasitic shrub, which, granted, is not a vast improvement statuswise. Nonetheless your unease about mistletoe is well founded. Mistletoe berries, for one thing, are poisonous, and some species can kill the trees that host them.

Even worse is the legend that supposedly accounts for our custom of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas. In the account given by Edgar Nash in the Saturday Evening Post in 1898, the Scandinavian god Baldur told his mother Frigga that he had a premonition of death, whereupon Frigga extracted promises from every animal, vegetable, and mineral that it would not harm her son. She overlooked only the inconsequential mistletoe, a fact that came to the unfortunate attention of Loki, the god of destruction. Loki promptly hustled over to where the other gods, obviously in desperate need of entertainment, were hurling spears and whatnot at Baldur for the fun of seeing them swerve aside without harming him. The pitiless Loki, however, shot an arrow of mistletoe, which fatally pierced Baldur's heart. Rather than punish Loki, the gods decided the answer was mistletoe control, and turned the plant over to Frigga to do with as she saw fit, provided it did not touch the ground. (Why it was important that it not touch the ground I do not know, although since it grows on trees mistletoe in fact generally does not touch the ground.) Frigga hung up the mistletoe and, to show she did not bear a grudge, declared that all who passed beneath it should receive a kiss of love and forgiveness rather than, say, a severed aorta. So when somebody smooches a fellow hominid who has strayed beneath the mistletoe, he or she is implicitly saying: be grateful it's only a kiss, babe, I could have killed you. Maybe not such an inappropriate custom for the 90s after all.

Love among the annelids

Dear Cecil:

About that business of worms mating "with the opposite sex" in your recent column. Surely you know that worms are one of the few truly bisexual critters about. They possess both male and female necessities for producing offspring. They are, however, sexually social animals, and only, er, self-mate when not around other worms.

Cecil replies:

Gawd. But what the foo, we haven't have an in-depth treatment of animal reproductive habits for months. Sure, worms are hermaphroditic, having both male and female organs. Not wanting to sensationalize this, I quote from the encyclopedia: "Two worms mate with their heads pointed in opposite directions." When I was a vulgar youth, the term we used to describe this practice among humans was, uh, 69. The equivalent among worms, I guess, is 11. Nah, that won't work. How about II? Or maybe (). Or, if the worms are kinky, . Or []: they're Egyptian. But getting back to business. "Both worms secrete mucus, covering each other with a 'slime tube' … Sperm are released and carried in grooves, now formed into tubes by the adjoining slime-covered worm, to the sperm receptacles of the partner. The worms then separate. Later [each worm] secretes a mucous ring, which slides forward over the worm's body, gathering several eggs from the oviducts and sperm from the receptacles as it does. Fertilization takes place within the mucous ring, which slips off the front of the worm, closing at both ends to form a capsule," from which one or two worms hatch a few weeks later. Edifying, ja? Reminds me of the one genuine philosophical insight I have ever had about the act of love, which came to me just after the commencement of activities in this regard: sex is sticky. I didn't know the half of it.

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