AUDIE CORNISH, host:
This time of year, we're used to seeing a sprig of mistletoe hanging from the doorway - the traditional invitation to a kiss. But where did it come from? There are commercial mistletoe farmers who harvest it, bag it and sell it. In some areas of the country there are also amateur harvesters who follow ancient methods of retrieving the plant from the tops of trees.
Matt Shafer Powell of member station WUOT in Knoxville trekked through the woods of east Tennessee to take part in this holiday ritual.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
MATT SHAFER POWELL: Our narrow scratchy path takes us past an old graveyard, through a half-frozen bog and across an ice-cold stream. A couple days ago, Bill Anderson spotted some mistletoe in a leafless maple here. From the ground it looks like someone tossed an evergreen shrub into the tree's highest branches.
Mr. BILL ANDERSON (Mistletoe Harvester): I really can't tell how big it is from here. It's about two feet across. And I have no idea how high that is.
POWELL: A good guess is around 35 feet, but Bill Anderson can handle it. At 60 years old, he's a seasoned climber with all the proper safety gear. And he likes being up in the trees. He says it's both challenging and peaceful up there. That's one reason you won't find Anderson down on the ground with a gun,�shooting the mistletoe out of the tree because that's how a lot of people harvest it.
You know there's a much easier way to do that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ANDERSON: Yes, but it's a little more destructive. Unless you're a very good shot with a .22, you know, you tend to do a lot of damage. So it's a little less destructive this way.
POWELL: That kind of respect for the plant and for centuries of tradition dictates most of what Anderson does here. He doesn't sell the mistletoe. He'll give some to his friends and his church. Anderson will also cut it down with a handsaw, tie it to a rope and lower it to a piece of plastic spread out on the ground.
Mr. ANDERSON: Traditionally, you never wanted the mistletoe to touch the ground because it would ground out the power. You know, I don't hold to that entirely, but there are some things you should respect just because.
POWELL: Anderson attaches his climbing rope to his harness and basically walks up the tree. Only minutes later, he sways gently among the top branches. He breaks out the handsaw and - snap.
(Soundbite of snap)
Mr. ANDERSON: Timber.
POWELL: A few of the smaller pieces of mistletoe do fall to the ground. His friend Jason McNair scrambles to pick them up and set them on the plastic. Then, Anderson ties off the big piece and eases it down to McNair.
Mr. JASON MCNAIR: This piece has some pretty little white berries on it. Its almost translucent.
POWELL: After rappelling back down the tree, Anderson reaches into a small pouch and pulls out a few uncut gems, some blue corn and tobacco. He'll sprinkle them around the tree as a way of saying thanks.
Mr. ANDERSON: And like so many things symbolic, this is really more for my benefit than it is for the trees.
POWELL: But before heading back to the manic tempo of the holidays, Anderson reaches out and gently pats the tree.
For NPR News, I'm Matt Shafer Powell in Tennessee.
(Soundbite of song, "Mistletoe and Holly")
Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Musician): (Singing) Oh by gosh, by golly, it's time for mistletoe and holly. Fancy ties and grannies pies and folks stealing a kiss or two, as they whisper Merry Christmas to you.