Now that the Christmas season is upon us once more, let’s see who has a mistletoe hanging somewhere from a door frame or ceiling. Do you? And would you know why? Sure, you might like to snatch a kiss from the lady or gentleman of your heart underneath it. But what is it all about? And why is it in all these Christmas songs?
Let’s first go back to where the name comes from and how we get this plant. Germanic “mist” means poop, and Old English “tan” (the older form of “toe”) means twig – and being pooped into branches is exactly how the sticky seeds of this parasitical plant end up in trees and spread, feeding of water and nutrients their hosts provides. Due to that habit and the different nutrients provided, the plant has different looks on different hosts in different regions. The kind we are used to has waxy white berries and evergreen leaves. We usually bind a cluster of it with a red ribbon – voilà, our traditional Christmas colors!
Quite soon in time, people realized that mistletoe was actually a toxic plant wreaking havoc with the digestive tract and even, in extreme cases, leading to cardiac arrest. Which is why children should be kept away from the berries. Maybe that is the true reason why the branches are hung upside down from the ceiling instead of standing in a vase on a table. On the other hand, we all know that poison in small doses can also be medication – so, it has had its uses in treating arthritis, high blood pressure, and currently sometimes even as veterinary herbal medicine.
Imagine our forefathers now. They hung branches for all kinds of superstitious purposes around their homes. Hazel branches e.g. had to be cut shortly before Christmas and were hung outside houses above windows and above doors to hinder witches and ghosts to enter. The timing makes sense, if you believe in the “Wild Hunt” (see https://thesubtimes.com/2019/01/04/across-the-fence-the-wild-hunt/) that begins just then and lasts till January 6.
To the druids of yore, mistletoe was a holy plant. The origin of this lies in the Nordic legend of Baldur, the god of light and truth, god Odin’s son. Baldur’s mother Frigga made all beings take an oath not to harm him. But there is always someone who will cross such intentions, of course. In this case, jealous god Loki realized that Frigga had forgotten to take the oath from Mistletoe, and he crafted an arrow from it that eventually killed Baldur. Frigga’s tears are said to have turned into the berries on the mistletoe. And that’s when the plant became a symbol of peace.
Druid leaders would cut the mistletoe with golden sickles on winter solstice and toss it from the crowns of the trees onto a cloth so the twigs wouldn’t touch the ground. (Readers of the French cartoon “Asterix & Obelix” will remember similar descriptions and also that mistletoe is part of the druid Miraculix’ magic potion.) After sacrificing a steer, the branches were distributed to the population and hung inside homes to prevent bad spirits to enter, to bring luck, and to provide peace.
It was probably the Romans occupying druid country who introduced the custom of kissing under the mistletoe. They associated the plant with love and peace and had always hung it for their Saturnalia, merrymaking around the same time of the druids’ festivity. So, if you met an enemy under a mistletoe, you kissed and made up.
With origins of the custom getting more and more blurred, the reason for kissing changed, but not so much the time of year for hanging the bunch of mistletoe. A girl standing under a mistletoe might be kissed by a man, and she would get married in the following year. That is unless she hadn’t been kissed more often than the number of berries on the twigs. If she refused to be kissed, bad luck would follow her, though. I have a hunch that this came up during Victorian times rather “Downstairs” than “Upstairs”, where marriages were arranged by family policy and showing emotions was restricted to symbolic kerchiefs, knots, and the fan language.
Though mistletoe is counted among the evergreens, the Christian churches have never adopted the plant into their customs as a symbol of eternal life. The evergreen’s context apparently has been too heathenish, and, as the berries also were used for abortions, the plant has not made it into any church decoration. You might want to check this out when or if you are going to church service over the holidays. Maybe customs have changed meanwhile? I have never looked that closely.
Do I hang mistletoe at home for Christmas decoration? As all of you know, I am already happily married – so, no need to county my berries. As to the kissing … a lady wouldn’t tell you, would she?!