Published: 17-03-2010, 16:09


The parasitic plant known as Viscum album to botanists has attached itself in a mysterious way to the celebration of Christmas. More commonly known as mistletoe, this plant frequently makes its home on the branches of apple trees, but may also be found on poplars, hawthorns, limes, maples, and even, occasionally on oak trees. According to an old English custom, sprigs of mistletoe may be hung over doorways and from ceilings around Christmas time; anyone may kiss a person who passes beneath the mistletoe. How did this plant and this custom come to be associated with Christmas? Perhaps no definitive answer to this question can be given, but we can review the history of the plant from ancient times to the present. Over the centuries a variety of European beliefs and customs have linked mistletoe to the winter season, magic, good will, and flirtation.

Mistletoe is an evergreen, a plant that stays green throughout the winter. Like HOLLY and IVY, mistletoe even bears fruit during this cold, dark season. The ancient Romans as well as the pagan peoples of northern Europe adorned their homes with evergreen boughs for their winter festivals (see also KALENDS; YULE). These plants, which continue to thrive as others around them appear to wither and die, may have symbolized the promise of new life or of eternal life to these ancient peoples. The custom of decking homes and temples with GREENERY during the heart of winter passed on into later northern European Christmas celebrations.

Over a century ago the famous anthropologist and classics scholar Sir George Frazer (1854-1941) suggested that mistletoe was an especially sacred plant to both the ancient Romans and the ancient peoples of northwestern Europe (sometimes referred to as the Celts). He proposed that the mistletoe plant, which not only lives without roots in the ground but also stays green in winter, baffled these ancient peoples. Therefore, they assigned mistletoe a special role in their religious beliefs.
Frazer claimed that the pagan peoples of ancient FRANCE, Britain, and IRELAND held mistletoe to be sacred, and they harvested it in special ceremonial ways. These peoples believed that mistletoe possessed magical powers and that the rare plants that grew on oak trees were the most powerful of all. Mistletoe gained its power in part from its ability to live halfway between heaven and earth. Therefore, when the Druids, or pagan priests, harvested the plant, they cut it with golden sickles and were careful never to let it touch the ground. The Druids called the plant “all-healer” and thought it had the power to cure many ills, including infertility, nervous diseases, and toothaches. (Today we know that mistletoe berries are highly poisonous, however). Mistletoe was also thought to attract good luck and to ward off witchcraft. Frazer asserted that the European folklore of his day still contained traces of these ancient beliefs. He noted that in some modern Celtic languages the word for mistletoe translates to “all-healer.”

The ancient Norse also reserved a special place for mistletoe in their mythology. Balder, the Norse god of sun and summer, was beloved in heaven and on earth. His mother, Frigga, the queen of the Norse gods, loved Balder so much she set about extracting a promise from every thing on the earth to refrain from harming her son. She disregarded the puny mistletoe, however, thinking it powerless to damage the sun god.
This omission provided an opportunity for the evil god Loki to scheme against Balder. Loki obtained some mistletoe and fashioned it into a spear. Then he brought it to Hodur, Balder’s blind brother, the god of night. The other gods were amusing themselves by tossing all sorts of objects at Balder and watching them turn aside at the last minute, bound by their promise not to harm the god. Loki offered Hodur the spear, assuring him that it, too, would turn aside before it could hurt the sun god. Hodur threw the mistletoe spear at his brother. It pierced Balder’s chest and killed him. According to one version of the myth, the father of these two brothers, Odin, eventually sent someone to kill Hodur, thus avenging Balder’s death.
At least one writer has suggested that the Norse attached this myth to the turning of the seasons, viewing the summer solstice as the time of Balder the sun god’s death, and the WINTER SOLSTICE as the time of Hodur the night god’s death.

This Norse myth suggests that the ancient Scandinavians believed that mistletoe possessed unseen powers—in this case, put to evil purposes. At some point, though, mistletoe became a symbol of peace and good will in pagan Scandinavia. Enemies who happened to meet beneath it in the forest declared a day’s truce from fighting. In Scandinavia a branch of mistletoe hung above a threshold thus came to signify the offer of hospitality and friendship within. Some claim that, after the coming of Christianity, mistletoe was seldom incorporated into church Christmas decorations, due to its strong association with the pagan past. Others disagree with this claim. If such a ban did exist, then York Cathedral in ENGLAND defied it. During medieval times Church officials placed a branch of mistletoe upon the high altar on Christmas Eve, signaling a general pardon for all wrongdoers for as long as it remained there.

The custom of kissing under the mistletoe appears to be of English origin. Although in recent centuries the British have earned a reputation for being physically reserved, this was not always the case. In the sixteenth century the visiting Dutch scholar Erasmus (1466?-1536) wrote that the English were so fond of kissing at meeting and parting that it was impossible to avoid being constantly kissed. It is difficult to say with certainty when the British adopted the custom of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas time. A seventeenth-century document speaks of the transport and sale of mistletoe at Christmas, but none mentions the custom of kissing under the mistletoe until the eighteenth century when some writers suggest that it became a common practice.
The custom attracted a number of somewhat contradictory folk beliefs. According to one belief, each time a boy kissed a girl under the mistletoe, he must pluck one of the berries. When no berries remained, no more kissing could occur under that branch. Some claimed that to refuse a kiss under the mistletoe meant that one would not marry in the next twelve months. Others claimed that no marriage was possible after such an offense. Another folk belief advised householders to burn their mistletoe branches after TWELFTH NIGHT in case the boys and girls who kissed under them never married. Still another recommended that a sprig of mistletoe be kept in order to drive evil away from the house during the coming year. The sprig might also be used to light the fire under next year’s Christmas pudding, or PLUM PUDDING. Finally, some thought it unlucky to cut mistletoe at any other time than Christmas.
The English often displayed mistletoe in the form of a KISSING BOUGH, a circular, or even spherical, configuration of greenery woven around hoops of wire or wood. One expert claims that the kissing bough reached the peak of its popularity in the eighteenth century and began to decline in the nineteenth century. In The Pickwick Papers, British writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870) offers a charming description of the fun and flirtation that occurred under the mistletoe in his day:

From the centre of the ceiling of this kitchen, old Wardle had just suspended with his own hand a huge branch of mistletoe, and this same branch of mistletoe instantaneously gave rise to a scene of general and most delightful struggling and confusion; in the midst of which, Mr. Pickwick, with a gallantry that would have done honour to a descendent of Lady Tollimglower herself, took the old lady by the hand, led her beneath the mystic branch, and saluted her in all courtesy and decorum. The old lady submitted to this piece of practical politeness with all the dignity which befitted so important and serious a solemnity, but the younger ladies, not being so thoroughly imbued with a superstitious veneration for the custom — or imagining that the value of a salute is very much enhanced if it cost a little trouble to obtain it — screamed and struggled, and ran into corners, and threatened and remonstrated, and did everything but leave the room until some of the less adventurous gentlemen were on the point of desisting when they all at once found it useless to resist any longer and submitted to be kissed with a good grace. Mr. Winkle kissed the young lady with the black eyes, and Mr. Snodgrass kissed Emily, and Mr. Weller, not being particular about the form of being under the mistletoe, kissed Emma and the other female servants just as he caught them. As to the poor relations, they kissed everybody, not even excepting the plainer portions of the young-lady visitors, who, in their excessive confusion, ran right under the mistletoe as soon as it was hung up, without knowing it! Wardle stood with his back to the fire, surveying the whole scene with the utmost satisfaction; and the fat boy took the opportunity of appropriating to his own use, and summarily devouring, a particularly fine mince-pie that had been put carefully by for someone else.

Today many people still enhance their Christmas festivities with mischievous sprigs of mistletoe. The custom is typically found in Britain, France, or countries where the British have settled, such as Canada and the United States.