One of the loveliest parts of the holidays is, of course, the traditions: Steaming mugs of cocoa, stockings hung by the fireplace, mistletoe hung in the doorway…
But wait. Why do we hang mistletoe at Christmas?
Origins of Mistletoe
The plant has a long history of having healing powers, from curing ulcers to neutralizing poisons. Mistletoe, with its white berries and green leaves, grows almost entirely in trees—it’s semi-parasitic and is spread through bird droppings. As it grows, it becomes attached to the tree in order to take water and nutrients from its host.
If mistletoe’s way of surviving is unromantic, its name is even more so--it derives from the Anglo-Saxon words “mistel,” meaning dung, and “tan,” meaning branch or stick.
Mistletoe: A Symbol of Love
Mistletoe’s association with romance most likely stems from the fact that the plant can blossom even during the winter, and thus became a symbol of life and fertility to the Celtic Druids around the first century. Mistletoe can even be found in Norse mythology: in one myth, Loki, the god of mischief, uses an arrow made from mistletoe to kill the (almost) invincible god Baldur, son of Odin. The gods were able to bring Baldur back from the dead, and as a thank you, his mother, Frigg, the goddess of love, made mistletoe a symbol of love and said she would give a kiss to anyone who passed underneath it.
A Christmas Kiss Under the Mistletoe
By the 18th century, mistletoe had become a part of Christmas festivities. The exact meaning of how and why remains a little hazy, but it’s generally agreed that the tradition started in England. The first mention of the tradition actually occurred in a song in 1784. One line in the song states, “And kiss beneath the mistletoe,” which is the first recorded reference. Mistletoe is also mentioned in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. In the United States, Washington Irving referred to it in The Sketch Book in 1820, after he had taken a trip to England. This write-up helped fuel the tradition’s popularity.
Stories abound- about mistletoe’s origins--one says that revelers could pluck a berry from the plant with each kiss--but they had to stop when all the berries were gone. Of course, one should not eat any of those berries picked. Tradition dictates that anyone standing beneath the mistletoe is due for a kiss; some versions say bad luck will visit the person who refused that kiss.
Whether you choose to look to its past or just concentrate on it as holiday décor, mistletoe would certainly be missed if it wasn’t a part of holiday celebrations!