Kissing Tradition Gives Mistletoe Its Mystique
Two people standing under the Mistletoe, share a quick kiss. How did this tradition develop?
Christmas is replete with traditions whose beginnings reach back many centuries. Invariably such traditions are joint efforts from many cultures and have changed over time. One example of this is the kissing tradition that gives mistletoe its mystique.
The Celtic Druids are sometimes given credit for starting the tradition because Pliny the Elder sniffed at them for it. In the first century A.D, he wrote that the Druids thought that drinking mistletoe made all animals more fertile and generally had mystical powers. You probably should not start drinking mistletoe if you want a baby, though. The berries of some species of this parasitic plant are poisonous. There is little evidence that it cures any disease, but the Druids were not the only ones who thought it encouraged fertility.
The Norse told the story of the goddess Frigga and her attempt to save her son Baldur. She made all the plants except mistletoe promise not to hurt him, and then Loki used a spear made of mistletoe to kill him. She cried over Baldur, and her tears became the berries of mistletoe. These berries brought him back to life. She ever afterward declared mistletoe to be the plant of love.
Romans and Greeks also made peace agreements under mistletoe. They thought the plant represented friendship and peace. The Romans also used it for decoration during their winter celebration of Saturnalia.
Great Britain was settled by a mixture of the Norse, the Romans and the Celts, so it is no great surprise that mistletoe became a part of their traditions. The British (and other Europeans) thought that the plant would cure epilepsy and ward off demons. They used mistletoe to decorate their homes. In the 18th and 19th century, writers started mentioning a tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. Some thought that people who kissed under the mistletoe would get married. Charles Dickens depicts a scene of ladies being kissed under mistletoe in The Pickwick Papers in 1836.
The British colonists brought the tradition to America. Early woodcuts of Christmas decorations in Colonial Virginia showcase bundles of mistletoe inside their homes. Washington Irving mentions it in the short story, “Christmas Eve,” published in 1820. Fortunately for us, various species of mistletoe grow throughout the world. These plants infect the branches of trees and dig roots into the host’s bark. After a year, it sprouts leathery, dark green leaves. Sticky white berries appear on the mistletoe in the fall, and the oldest traditions suggest that a person picked a berry before stealing a kiss.
Mistletoe makes good bird food, and it is a pretty decoration to any home. So when you decorate your home for winter this year, think of your British, Norse, Celtic, Roman and Greek forbears and hang a few sprigs of mistletoe. Kissing is optional.
May your holidays be bright and filled with love