Kissing under sprigs of mistletoe, one of the most famous symbols of Christmas, is a well-known holiday tradition.
However, this little plant’s history as a symbolic herb dates back thousands of years, and many ancient cultures prized it for its healing properties.
The plant’s romantic overtones most likely started with the Celtic Druids of the 1st century A.D. Because mistletoe could blossom even during the frozen winter, they came to view it as a sacred symbol of vivacity, and they administered it to humans and animals alike in the hope of restoring fertility.
From the earliest times, in fact, mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore. The mistletoe of the sacred oak was especially sacred to the ancient Druids. On the sixth night of the moon white-robed priests would cut the oak mistletoe with a golden sickle. Two white bulls would be sacrificed amid prayers that the recipients of the mistletoe would prosper. Later, the ritual of cutting the mistletoe from the oak came to symbolize the emasculation of the old King by his successor, and plant was long regarded as both a sexual symbol and the “soul” of the oak. It was gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices, and the custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is a survival of the Druid and other pre-Christian traditions.
The Greeks were also known to use it as a cure for everything, from menstrual cramps to spleen disorders, and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder noted it could be used as a balm against epilepsy, ulcers and poisons.
In addition, It is one of the most sacred and magical plants in Christian folklore, and it is believed that the plant can protect the house from lightening and fire.
There is also a traditional belief that mistletoe is a plant of peace and that a kiss under this plant ensures undying love and friendship. The belief that no lady standing under decorated mistletoe can refuse to be kissed, is obviously a major attraction for young men and a kiss under mistletoe is often interpreted as a proposal of marriage. Though most of these beliefs and superstitions are of pagan significance, they are still present in all their glory, and the legend of mistletoe being a widely celebrated still today.
Probably the mystical power of mistletoe, and the tradition of kissing under this plant, owes its origin from Norse mythology. As the story goes, the god Odin’s son Baldur, the God of the Summer Sun, once dreamt of his death. Obviously worried, he told his mother Frigga, the Goddess of Love, about his strange dream. Frigga was worried not only for the life of her son but also for the life on Earth because she knew that without Baldur, all life on Earth would come to an end. Thus, she did her utmost to avoid such a tragedy by going everywhere and appealing to every being in air, water, fire and earth, to promise her that they would never harm her son. As a result, she was promised the safety of Baldur by every animal and plant under and above the Earth.
However, Loki, the God of Evil, who was an enemy of Baldur and always had evil designs in his mind, was aware that there was one plant that Frigga had overlooked: It grew on apple and oak trees and was known as Mistletoe.
Thus, Loki made an arrow and placed a sprig of this plant at its tip. He then beguiled Hoder, the blind brother of Baldur and the God of Winter, and made him shoot this arrow at Baldur, who immediately died. Everybody was worried as the Earth turned cold and life became dreary. According to one sunnier version of the myth, the gods were able to resurrect Baldur from the dead. Delighted, Frigga then declared mistletoe a symbol of love. Her tears on the plant became pearly white berries and she blessed it such that anyone who stands under the mistletoe would never be harmed and would be entitled to a kiss as a token of love.
What could be more natural than to translate the spirit of this old myth into a Christian way of thinking and accept the mistletoe as the emblem of that Love which conquers Death?
Mistletoe’s associations with fertility and vitality continued through the Middle Ages, and by the 18th century it had become widely incorporated into Christmas celebrations. In the Middle Ages and later, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits. In Europe they were placed over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches. Just how it made the jump from sacred herb to Christmas decoration remains a mystery, but the kissing tradition appears to have first caught on among servants in England before spreading to the middle classes. As part of the early custom, men were allowed to steal a kiss from any woman caught standing under the mistletoe, and refusing was viewed as bad luck.
In any case, whether we believe it or not, it always makes for fun and frolic at Christmas celebrations, and the custom of exchanging a kiss under the mistletoe can still be found in many European countries as well as in Canada.