It’s a pretty odd thing to do, hanging mistletoe up once a year and kissing underneath it for good luck. Like all traditions, the background to this mysterious act is as colourful as any Santa’s grotto.
What is mistletoe?
Mistletoe is a plant that grows in trees. The seeds stick to a branch, root into it and feed off its water and nutrients. Between 3 to 5 years later it will develop green shoots, leaves and eventually berries.
The Cultural History of Mistletoe
The history of this plant goes back not hundreds, but thousands of years. The Ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Celtic druids and other ancient European cultures associated the shrub with fertility, life and good luck. This is all despite mistletoe being a semi-parasitic and poisonous plant! They regarded it as special because it would grow on trees during winter. Since all other plants had died, it was seen as a symbol of immortality.
The reason it grows on trees is because birds eat the berries, fly to another tree and leave behind their droppings. The word ‘mistletoe’ is derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘misteltan’ from ‘mistel, meaning ‘dung’, and ‘tan’ meaning ‘twig’, so the plant that we associate with a festive kiss actually means ‘dung twig’; how romantic!
In Ancient Scandinavia, it was seen as the plant of peace. If two opposing armies met and spotted mistletoe nearby, they would lay down their weapons and declare a truce until the next day.
People would also kiss under the mistletoe to celebrate the rebirth of the Norse god Baldur, who was brought back to life using the plant, which was then blessed as something that brings life and love to the world. A tradition emerged where people would hang mistletoe over a doorway to spread good luck to anyone passing through.
The Celts took the symbolism of this even further and believed it could cure illnesses, serve as an antidote against poisons, ensure fertility and protect against the ill effects of witchcraft. A tradition grew whereby a druid would harvest mistletoe, divide the branches up and distribute them to the people, who would then hang them in their homes as protection against thunder, lightning and other evils.
Christianity absorbed the tradition and it quickly spread into Western Europe and became a Christmas decoration. In 18th century Britain, the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe was popularised, where a ball (or kissing bough) made of the plant would be hung up, and if a couple were standing directly beneath it, they’d have to kiss for good luck. In some variations of the tradition, after every kiss a berry would be removed, and once all the berries were gone the mistletoe would then be seen as spreading bad luck, and was taken down. Now we see the plant as an invitation to share love and affection to everyone that passes over our threshold, and a good excuse to steal kisses from your partner.
So when you put up your Christmas decorations and cover your home in festive fun, remember to put up some mistletoe for good luck and spare a thought for the extraordinary history and symbolism that follows this unassuming little shrub.
Are you a fan of mistletoe around Christmas? Let us know where you like to hang it in the comments.
Chris is a staff writer at Sparkling Strawberry despite never having worn lingerie.
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