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Kissing under the mistletoe is a well-known holiday tradition, that’s given rise to countless romantic storylines. But how did this herb really become associated with a Christmastime kiss? Since the significance of mistletoe dates back thousands of years, let’s take a closer look at the plant and the many other ancient traditions and myths associated with it.
History of the Mistletoe Plant
Native to Northern Europe and known as Viscum Album, mistletoe is a hemiparasitic plant that grows on branches of trees, particularly hardwood trees like oak and apple. It is characterized by symmetrical evergreen leaves and white or red berries and has been considered sacred for centuries.
- In Norse, Greek and Roman Mythology
In Norse mythology, the god Baldur—the son of Frigga, the goddess of love and marriage—was invincible since his mother had made everything growing on earth promise not to harm him. Unfortunately, mistletoe didn’t actually grow on the ground, so it was used in a form of arrow or spear to kill him. Frigga’s tears then turned into mistletoe berries, which brought her son back to life, so she declared the plant a symbol of love.
In Virgil’s Aeneid, mistletoe is seen as a symbol of good luck. Trojan hero Aeneas brings a golden bough, which is thought to be mistletoe, in order to enter the underworld. One of the episodic tales in the epic, The Golden Bough, was written during the Pax Romana under the reign of Augustus Caesar.
- Celtic and Roman Significance
Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote that the Druids, high-ranking people in ancient Britain and France, “held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it.” In fact, the ancient Druids worshipped the plant and even climbed trees to harvest it. Mistletoe was widely used in rituals or in medicine.
The custom of hanging up mistletoe during the holiday season likely originated from the traditions of Saturnalia, a pagan celebration of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. The Romans celebrated it by decorating their homes with wreaths and other greenery, along with feasting and gift giving.
By the 4th century, many of the traditions of the Roman festival were incorporated into Christmas celebrations that we know today—and they continue to thrive.
Why Do People Kiss Under Mistletoe at Christmas?
It’s not clear why people began kissing under mistletoe, but the tradition appears to have first caught on among domestic workers in England and then spread to the middle classes. It is likely rooted in an ancient tradition where mistletoe was regarded as a symbol of fertility. Other reasons could include the Norse myth of Baldur, Druid customs, and Saturnalia traditions.
One of the earliest mentions of the tradition comes from The Pickwick Papers, an 1836 novel by Charles Dickens, where mistletoe was supposed to bring luck to two people who kissed underneath it and bad luck to those who didn’t. By the 18th century in Britain, the plant had become a significant part of Christmas celebrations.
Symbolic Meaning of the Mistletoe Plant
Mistletoe is more than just a Christmas decoration, because it pre-dates Christmas. It’s been linked to many stories and traditions over hundreds of years. Here are some of its symbolism:
- A Symbol of Fertility and Healing – In ancient times, the Druids associated it with vivacity because the plant miraculously stayed green and blossomed even during the winter. They also believed it could perform miracles and used it as medicine to encourage fertility. Also, the Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, viewed mistletoe as a cure against poison and epilepsy.
- A Symbol of Love – Mistletoe became associated with love due to the kissing tradition. In many movies and novels, mistletoe gives couples an opportunity to become intimate, thus reinforcing its association with love and romance.
- A Symbol of Good Luck – While the association is likely rooted in Norse, Greek and Roman mythologies, it’s also a tradition in France to give a sprig of mistletoe as a good luck charm or Porte Bonheur at New Year.
- Protection from Evil – In medieval times, the mistletoe was hung year-round to ward off evil spirits, ghosts, and witches, and then the old plant was burned after a new one was brought in.
Mistletoe in Modern Use
Mistletoe is regarded the symbolic state flower of Oklahoma, USA, as well as the county flower of Herefordshire, England. Also, the 1st of December has been recognized by teh British Parliament as National Mistletoe Day.
The motif became popular in art nouveau designs throughout Europe, and has also established its place in art, from seasonal Christmas and New Year decorations to non-seasonal pieces, such as vases, lamps, and dinnerware.
In jewelry design, mistletoe is often featured on earrings, necklaces, brooches, bracelets, and rings. Some are fashioned in gold or silver, where freshwater pearls are depicted as white berries. Other designs depict leaves made of emerald stones, green glass, Paua shell, mother of pearl, or polymer clay. Mistletoe makes for gorgeous hair decorations, especially in clips and combs.
Mistletoe as a symbol of love, fertility, and good luck dates back thousands of years, but it continues to be significant in modern times. In fact, many still hold to the tradition of hanging the mysterious golden bough during Christmas to bring good luck, romance and to ward off evil.