Mistletoe is a strange plant. Neither tree nor shrub, it grows between soil and sky on the branches of other trees. It’s rarely found on the oak and ancient Druids viewed mistletoe as sacred if it was. Felling an oak that played host to the parasitic plant invited disaster.
In fact, Margaret Baker recounts the story of the Hay family in Perthshire. An oak on their land played host to mistletoe, and the family prospered for generations. Local legends explained that the oak protected the family from witchcraft. It also stopped faeries from replacing the children with changelings. But all good luck runs out and eventually the estate passed out of the family. Locals noted the oak tree had been felled shortly before (2011: 100).
But what’s the link between mistletoe and Christmas?
Mistletoe represents fertility. After all, as an evergreen plant, it stands out against the bare branches of dormant trees in winter. The Druids even believed the pearly pulp of the berries was the semen of the Oak King.
Pliny claimed the druids harvested mistletoe with a golden sickle. They caught it in a cloak because it lost its magic powers if it touched the ground. It’s entirely possible this is utter gutrot, based on Pliny’s tendency towards the outlandish. But 18th-century antiquarian William Stukeley brought the idea into the public imagination during his campaign to revive interest in druidic traditions.
It was so potent that in Italy, women carried sprigs of it to aid conception.
Baker suggests that kissing under the mistletoe was actually a fertility rite (2011: 101). In some countries, the sprigs had to be burned by Twelfth Night. Otherwise, those who kissed under it would never marry.
Mistletoe also pops up in Greek legend, after Aeneas plucks ‘the golden bough’. Having done so, he can journey to the land of the dead to speak to his dead father, Anchises. According to mistletoe.org.uk, many scholars think the golden bough refers to mistletoe since European mistletoe looks gold during the winter
Did the kissing link come from Norse mythology?
In Norse mythology, Frigg made all living things swear an oath never to harm Baldr, god of light. Frigg only extracted the oath from anything on or under the earth. But Loki realised she’d missed the mistletoe – because it technically grows above the earth.
So Loki made a dart from its wood and tricked Baldr’s blind brother, Höd, into throwing it. The dart killed Baldr.
According to Margaret Baker, Robert Graves actually made his own mistletoe dart to see if such a feat were possible. It was (2011: 99).
In one version of the story, Frigg cried over the dart lodged in her dead son. The tears turned into the white berries, and Frigg used them to bring Baldr back to life. In return to the miracle, she promised anyone a kiss who passed under the mistletoe.
A number of versions of this story end very differently. In many of them, Baldr ends up in Niflheim, the kingdom of the dead. So it’s difficult to tell if the kissing tradition begins with this story.
But when did mistletoe end up as a Christmas decoration?
Some believe that kissing under the mistletoe started in the festival of Saturnalia. In Scandinavia, the plant represented peace. If you wanted to declare a truce, you kissed under the mistletoe. And what better time to declare a truce than at Christmas?
In the medieval era, families hung mistletoe in the house during December to ward off evil. It was then burnt after Christmas – presumably to get rid of any evil it had collected during the month.
But it really starts making an appearance in the home in the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain. Even Charles Dickens described scenes of festive kissing in The Pickwick Papers (1836).
Some believe you’re supposed to remove a berry for every kiss. The good luck for kissing runs out when the berries do.
In Victorian England, if a girl refused to grant a kiss under the mistletoe, she wouldn’t receive any marriage proposals at all the following year.
Mistletoe and folklore
Mistletoe appears within folklore in a pretty wide range of guises. It doesn’t just open all locks. It also protects the home from fire and lightning during festivals held on the Solstices.
In the Ozarks, farmers hung the plant in their smokehouses to keep witches from stealing the meat. The local folk also used both the leaves and the berries in top-secret love potions.
(NB: The leaves can be used in medicine as a sedative nerve tonic and anti-convulsant. But the berries are toxic)
Folk in Normandy used it to get rid of fleas in their bedding. Hung above a cradle, the plant would stop faeries stealing a baby.
There’s also a tradition that mistletoe was the wood of the cross. In Brittany, people believed that the plant was punished. The small tree became a parasitic plant in retaliation for its part in the crucifixion.
But whatever its origin, this strange little plant has become intrinsically linked with Christmas! It even made an appearance in Batman Returns (1992), during Batman and Catwoman’s flirtation.
So do keep your eye out for any mistletoe this year – but always ask permission before you try to land a kiss!
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Baker, Margaret (2011) Discovering the Folklore of Plants, 3rd edition, Oxford: Shire Classics.
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