The history of mistletoe at Christmas

It’s the season for mistletoe, or at least so it would have been back in England during the 18th and 19th century. The little plant with its golden boughs, yellow-green oval leaves and sticky white berries had an important role to play in Christmas celebrations, forming the crucial part of the Kissing Bough or being hung in bunches in strategic places around the household.

Any woman standing under the tree could be asked for a kiss, and courted bad luck if she refused. In one version of the tradition, every kiss was paid for by plucking a berry from the hanging stems, and when the berries were gone, so were the kisses.

So how did a little parasite come to be a magical harbinger of romance?

There are a few stories; some from Norse tradition, some Greek, some from the druids of ancient Britain, and some with strong Christian traditions.

The plant that killed the favourite

In Norse mythology, one god was the favourite of all the others. Everyone loved Baldur. Everyone, that is, but Loki, the god of mischief. Frigga, Baldur’s mother, protected her beloved boy by travelling all the world, and asking everything that grew on land and under it to promise never to hurt Baldur.

As a result, Baldur became invulnerable to anything thrown or thrust at him, provided it was plant-based. Of course, poking Baldur with plant-based weapons became a favourite game, because boys are like that. But Frigga had forgotten one important fact.

Mistletoe doesn’t grow on land or under it. It grows on the branches of another plant — including, willow, oak, and apple trees. Loki made a dart from mistletoe wood and gave it to the blind god, Hoder, so he could join in the game. And Baldur died.

Everything in heaven and earth wept, and Frigga tried for three days to restore her son. In the end, her tears became the mistletoe berries, and Baldur woke from death. In her joy, Frigga made the mistletoe her sacred plant, and decreed that anyone standing under it would never come to harm, but would only be kissed.

Power over hell

In Greek myth, mistletoe had power even over hell. Two doves bought a golden bough of mistletoe to Aenas to light his way through the forest that blocked the way into Hades. When he showed the bough to the ferryman at the River Styx, he and the bough were instantly transported alive across the river.

The sign of peace

To the druids, mistletoe was very special. They believed it could heal just about anything. They cut it from oak trees with sickles of gold, and gathered it without letting it touch the ground. And they hung it in bunches in houses to keep away sickness and war, protect the household from sickness and ghosts, and bring happiness and fertility.

Anyone passing under mistletoe had to lay down their arms and desist from fighting until the next day, even in a forest. Even more so in a house, where guests would stand under the mistletoe to greet their hosts with a kiss of friendship.

Love conquers death

No wonder, with this history, the mistletoe was adopted by the new Christians of Northern Europe, who easily made the transition to seeing this plant of healing and peace as a symbol of Christ, who lay down his life to bring peace to the world, and who came alive out of death. Mistletoe became particularly associated with the birth of Christ, which was now being celebrated in midwinter, when mistletoe had been a traditional part of pre-Christian ceremonies.

Friendship kisses under the mistletoe translated nicely into the new Christian celebrations.

Kissing for luck

Exactly how kisses of peace became the romantic kisses we think of today, we can only guess. But the idea that mistletoe will bring prosperity and fertility might have something to do with it. Prosperity for a woman meant marriage, and by the sixteenth century, kissing under the mistletoe was wildly popular among the working classes.

By the nineteenth century, the custom had often been adopted above stairs as well as below, though not by all. Some regarded it as licentious and improper. But only the most rigid of moralists would refuse a kissing bough to the servants’ hall, even if his or her own daughters could safely pass through the family’s parlours safe in the knowledge that no errant white berry posed a risk to the sanctity of their fair lips. Poor girls.

A week today, I’m publishing the ebook version of If Mistletoe Could Tell Tales, a collection of my Christmas novellas and novelettes. The print version is already available. At 92,000 words, or 320 print pages, of stories about the magic of romance during the magic of Christmas. At $2.99 for the ebook, it represents a 40% discount over the cost of the individual books. And the print cost of $12.50 makes it a great stocking stuffer. Follow the link in the name above for blurb and buy links.

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