Holiday History: The Magic of Mistletoe

Retrospect

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We've looked at the history of Christmas trees and holly in years past, but why do we have a tradition of kissing under the mistletoe? Some of the reasons might surprise you — I know I'll never look at a mistletoe berry the same way again…

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It's easy to see why ancient people would have been fascinated with mistletoe — it's not a typical plant. Mistletoe is a parasite: It has no roots in the ground, but digs roots into the bark of trees, like oaks, birches and apples, flourishing green even in wintertime when the 'host' tree is bare-limbed.

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Mistletoe's evergreen quality and its ability to pop up and thrive seemingly without roots resonated with ancient ideas about fertility and procreation. Some historians also believe that the poisonous berries were used as herbal abortifacients, so the plant became associated with unfettered sexuality.

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There's another somewhat shocking theory that mistletoe's sexy reputation came from the resemblance between its (ahem) pearly berries scattered among mistletoe leaves to (ahem) semen. The Greek goddess Artemis was said to wear a crown of mistletoe as a symbol of fertility and eternal life. In Roman times, the Druids believed the juice of the mistletoe berry would make barren animals fertile. Point is, mistletoe has been a symbol of sexuality and fecundity for millennia.

Mistletoe has also been a more PG symbol of friendship and peace, and was thought to ward off evil and death. It would be hung over a cradle to protect a baby from evil spirits, and hung in a doorway to protect a whole house. Ancient Scandinavian mores dictated that enemies who walked under mistletoe in the forest had to lay down their weapons and declare a truce until the next day.

Most relevant to the kissing tradition is a Norse legend about the death and rebirth of the summer sun:
Baldar, the god of the summer sun, saw in a dream his death. Frigga, his mother and the goddess of beauty and love — and from whom we get the name Friday — compelled the elements, plants and animals to not kill Baldar. But she neglected to extract this same promise from the unique mistletoe. The evil god Loki (brother of Thor) … fashioned a poisoned dart from mistletoe and with the aid of Baldar's blind brother Hoder shot the mistletoe missile to kill Baldar. His death brought winter and his mother's lamentation.

Frigga's tears over her son changed the red mistletoe berries white and raised Baldar from the dead. From her gratitude she blessed with a kiss everyone who walked beneath mistletoe, declaring that the mistletoe must forever after bring love rather than death into the world.*

In Christian times, mistletoe was said to be the plant from which Christ's cross was formed, and so it was condemned to be a parasite as punishment for its role in his death. As further penance, it was said the plant had to bless everyone who walked under it, perhaps a Christian version of Frigga's blessing. The Christianizing of mistletoe also parallels the Christianizing of other evergreens, like fir trees, which played a role in early pagan mid-winter festivals and then were eventually appropriated as Christian symbols of eternal life and the promise of springtime.

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The tradition of kissing under mistletoe doesn't seem to appear in any literature until 18th-century England, and then the practice especially flourished during the 19th century Victorian era. A ball of mistletoe, ornamented with ribbons, would be hung around Christmastime, and no unmarried girl could refuse a kiss if she was underneath it. At every kiss, the boy would pluck one of the mistletoe berries, and when there were no more berries, the ball was taken down until the next year. If a girl didn't receive a mistletoe kiss by the time the ball was taken down, she couldn't expect to marry in the following year. So the kiss could be a promise of marriage or a symbol of admiration, but it was also a kind of mystical fortune-telling trick.

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Given the muddled origins of the tradition, feel free to imbue mistletoe with whatever associations you find most resonant — as a symbol of friendship and peace, a symbol of evergreen life and rebirth, or as a sexy symbol of fertility and the promise of love.

Is mistletoe part of your Christmas tradition?

*Re-telling of the Norse legend via Bill Petro

Images: 1 Kuriositas; 2 Wikipedia; 3 Flickr user ark, licensed for use under Creative Commons; 4 Purple Sage; 5 Bright Hub; 6 Norman Rockwell for the Saturday Evening Post.