At Christmas, its customary to put mistletoe above doorways, and for people to kiss underneath it. Where does this tradition come from, and what is mistletoe? Read on.
The kiss tradition of mistletoe
Like many traditions of history, we cannot be 100% sure where this one came from. However, the most popular story goes back to ancient Norse culture, which is interesting since so much of modern Christmas culture may have originated in Northern Europe. According to legend, goddess of love Frigga had a son called Bulder; who served as the god of innocence and light. Frigga wanted to protect her innocent son, and used powerful magic to ensure no creatures or plants could harm the boy.
She made a mistake, though. She cast a spell for all that grows from the earth to be unable to harm her son. But this left out mistletoe. Mistletoe grows on the branches of other trees as a parasite; creating a sort of loophole to the spell.
When evilish trickster god Loki learned of this failing; he took advantage of it by making an arrow out of a mistletoe branch. He tricked Bulder’s brother, the blind Hoth, into shooting the arrow; and guided it into Bulder’s heart to kill him. According to mythology, Bulder’s death meant the death of the sun’s light; making for the long, dark winters of the north.
Frigga’s tears of sorrow over Bulder’s death, fell onto the mistletoe and turned the berries from red to white. According to some versions, Frigga decided that no one further should ever get hurt by mistletoe, like her son was; and made a decree that the plant would thenceforth promote love and peace. As part of this, those passing under mistletoe, receive a kiss from her.
Some sources indicate this went as far as war. If enemies mistakenly met under mistletoe, they too were required to set aside their weapons and their differences, exchange a kiss for peace, and call a truce for a day. Although its unclear if this ever happened in real life.
Other stories of origin
While the previous story makes for great folklore, it doesn’t connect our use of mistletoe today (particularly as a part of Christmas), to this Norse mythology. In fact, the story written above, does not necessarily follow that line; and different versions of the story, give different accounts and end in different ways.
Historian Mark Forsyth disagrees with the standard telling. He’s the author of A Christmas Cornucopia: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Yuletide Traditions; which takes a deep dive into four different versions of the story of Bulder’s death, and the fallout from it. One thing that might already have occurred to you, and which Forsyth points out to TIME Magazine, is that “Baldur’s death involves mistletoe, but it’s got nothing to do with kissing or Christmas.”
Though Forsyth can’t offer a better explanation from historical documentation as to why it became a practice on Christmas to kiss under mistletoe; he does offer that it started as a tradition circa 1720-1784 in England. Forsyth gives those specific years for a reason. In 1720, extensive research on the plant was published by John Colbatch, but left out anything to do with this custom; even though it did cover other superstitions and traditions related to it.
The date 1784 was given as an end point by which time it would have started, because that was the year that the first published reference was made to the custom of mistletoe kissing (or at least, that Forsyth could find). It came from lyrics of a song, which went like this:
“What all the men, Jem, John, and Joe,
Cry, ‘What good-luck has sent ye?’
And kiss beneath the mistletoe,
The girl not turn’d of twenty.”
Forsyth, nor any other historian, can say what happened within those years to create this tradition. But as Forsyth put it in his book: “I can take a pretty shrewd guess that it involved a particularly lusty and inventive boy, and a particularly gullible girl.”
More recent mentions of Christmas and mistletoe
Nothing stays exactly the same through time. This idea is exemplified by the confusion over how the original story of Bulder’s death, now relates to kissing under the plant that killed him, and specifically on Christmas. Subsequent mentions to mistletoe and Christmas, have change over time as well.
For example, in a couple early mentions, including Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers; there are Christmas scenes with mistletoe kissing, which show the ladies trying to resist. In these cases the ladies relent because of the mistletoe, and a possible risk of bad fortune if they don’t, (a superstition related to the custom). On the other hand, Forsyth claims there were women who used it to their advantage. According to him, some used “the mistletoe excuse to elude possessive husbands and parents,” indicating that these women might have been getting up to their own bad behavior with the plant.
In terms of it spreading to America, the tradition was brought across the ocean by Washington Irving by way of his 1820 The Sketch Book. After a trip to England, he wrote: “The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.”
What is mistletoe?
We know of a current and long-standing tradition associated with Christmas and kissing under the mistletoe plant. And we know that it might have a base in Norse culture, although the details of the original story, and how it became related to Christmas, are up for debate. So what is this plant that makes people pucker up on one of the most holy of Christian holidays?
Mistletoe is actually a parasitic plant from any of the following families: Loranthaceae, Misodendraceae, and Santalaceae. It grows on crop trees, timber, and other ornamental plants, and takes water and nutrients from the host, by way of root-like structures called haustorium. It can even be parasitic to other mistletoe plants. Mistletoe often deforms the branches of its host plant, and can even affect the host’s ability for reproduction. The parasitic nature is what drives the story of Frigga and Bulder. Mistletoe doesn’t have to grow directly out of the ground, and can grow right on other plants.
While the term refers to many different species, it was originally associated with Viscum album, specifically from the British Isles and parts of Europe. This particular species has white berries rather than red berries. Another species called Viscum cruciatum, comes from Europe and Africa, and has the red berries associated with Christmas. North America also has a type of mistletoe native to it called Phoradendron leucarpum, which produces white berries.
Mistletoe is written about as being toxic to humans, but it seems this is likely when used in very high doses, or when used incorrectly. It has been a part of traditional medicine for thousands of years as a treatment for different ailments like seizures, headaches, and menopause symptoms, as an aphrodisiac, for fertility, ulcers, and even for cancer.
As of yet, I don’t see anything about psychoactive effects, apart from it possibly causing hallucinations at high doses; along with nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and messing with the heart rate. It’s not used for psychoactive purposes, and in high doses (much like almost anything), it can make a person sick, although there aren’t related deaths. Perhaps it’s possible, that some ancient cultures did harness this ability for hallucinations; and perhaps like Amanita mushrooms, there is a way to prepare it that allows for such properties, without causing illness. Things to ponder in the future.
We associate mistletoe with how we see it on Christmas, with green pointed leaves, and red berries clustered together, or spaced throughout the leaves. Sometimes plants with white berries are used as well, but red is more commonplace. Sometimes the leaves are rounded or smoother, sometimes long and ovular. The plants do vary from species to species. Often its tied up with bows, woven into wreaths, or has bells hanging down from it.
It’s strange to think that there’s a longstanding tradition of kissing someone just because there’s a plant overhead; but such is the tradition of mistletoe. So pucker up and get ready this holiday season!
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