Today, mistletoe is where we might meet a cute person to share a holiday kiss, but it actually has a rich history that begins in Norse mythology, Druid ritual, and Roman celebration. The plant has been believed by many cultures and over many years to be magical and sacred.
The Druids were perhaps the first to assign ritual to mistletoe, although they did not kiss beneath it. To the ancient Druids, mistletoe was believed to be incredibly sacred. They would gather around an oak tree where mistletoe grew, on the sixth moon after the winter solstice, their new year. The mistletoe would be cut from the tree with a golden sickle, and allowed to fall onto a white cloth below. Much care was taken to ensure the mistletoe did not touch the ground, as it was believed it would then lose its magical powers. The Druids then sacrificed two white bulls under the oak tree. They would make a tea from the plant, thought to bring fertility, healing, eternal life, and protection from evil. The people were also given boughs of mistletoe to hang in their doorways, as a signal to the forest spirits that they could take shelter there during the cold winter.
In Norse mythology, mistletoe is significant in the story of Baldr, who was the Norse god of light and purity. Baldr was the son of Frigga, the goddess of love. She foresaw his death, and wanted to be sure no harm would come to him. Frigga went to the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water, and to every plant and animal, to gain a promise that none of them would hurt Baldr. And so he was safe from all things on earth and under the earth.
Baldr had one enemy, Loki, the god of mischief. Loki was a clever and tricky god, and found a loophole in Frigga’s protection of Baldr. This loophole was mistletoe, as Frigga had overlooked the plant in her quest of protection. Loki crafted an arrow out of mistletoe, and guided Baldr’s blind brother, Hoder, to shoot and kill Baldr.
Baldr was mourned by all, especially his mother. As she cried and her tears fell on the mistletoe arrow, they turned into the white berries of the mistletoe plant. In some versions of the story, Frigga is able to bring Baldr back to life, and she was so happy that she kissed all who passed under the tree where mistletoe grew. The story ends with the plant becoming a symbol of love and peace and that all who pass underneath shall not be harmed, but given a kiss.
In Medieval Europe, mistletoe was referred to as allheal, and was thought to be a cure to many ailments. It was said to bring good fortune, and sprigs were hung for protection against witches and evil. In some traditions, as long as mistletoe remained hanging in a home, love would remain in the home. Mistletoe was also commonly banned from churches at this time, and continued to be into the 20th century, because of its Pagan origins and connection to fertility.
Kissing Under the Mistletoe
Ultimately, the origin of kissing under the mistletoe during Christmas time stems from the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a wild, debaucherous, and gluttonous celebration of the god Saturn. Taking place from December 17 to December 23, Saturnalia is actually an early predecessor to Christmas (No, Christmas is not originally a Christian holiday, but more on that later). Mistletoe was connected to this celebration, as well as marriage celebrations, because of its fertility symbolism and status as an aphrodisiac.
Victorian England ends up taking a lot of credit for the tradition however. Kissing under the mistletoe was a big part of Victorian Christmas celebrations, and it wasn’t to be taken lightly. If a woman found herself under the mistletoe, she had to accept a kiss from whoever was offering. If she refused a kiss, she should not expect a marriage proposal in the following year, and she may even end up an old maid. Oh the horror! There were rules however. When a kiss was bestowed, a berry had to be plucked the the mistletoe, and once there were no more berries, no more kisses were allowed.
Today we take a much more light hearted approach to the tradition; we meet someone we like under the mistletoe and share a kiss. Perhaps this year, share the ancient and interesting history of your yuletide kiss with your partner.