Have you ever received a kiss under a sprig of Mistletoe during the holiday season? If not, then you have undoubtedly seen the tradition played out in the movies or on TV. The plant has even made its way into a number of classic holiday songs.
Decorating with Mistletoe may not be as well-known a holiday tradition as singing carols or stringing lights up around the Christmas tree, but it’s near the top of the pantheon of holiday traditions. However, despite its popularity, the history of the plant and how it became incorporated into holiday lore remains mostly unknown.
What is Mistletoe?
Let’s start from the beginning. The mistletoe tradition holds that a man is allowed to kiss any woman standing beneath a sprig or bouquet of Mistletoe, and vice versa. If a kiss is refused, bad luck befalls the person who said “No.”
Now we will dive a little deeper into the lesser-known facts. Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic plant that produces small white berries and grows almost exclusively in trees. It finds its home like many seeds do – through bird droppings. As the seed begins to grow, the plant attaches itself to the “host” tree in order to steal water and the essential nutrients that it needs to survive.
Not only is mistletoe a parasitic plant that comes from bird droppings, but the origins of the name itself are fairly unattractive as well. It’s derived from two Anglo Saxon words “Mistel” meaning dung, and “Tan” meaning stick or branch.
So where does the tradition of kissing others underneath the branches of a small parasitic plant come from?
The History of Mistletoe
The puzzle begins in the 1st century A.D. with an ancient civilization. The consensus among experts is that the use of Mistletoe in ritual form started with the Celtic Druids. This ancient civilization of people lived on the British Isles in what is now Ireland and Scotland.
The Mistletoe became a sacred symbol of vivacity and fertility to the Druids after they saw it blooming in the trees during the harsh winters. It would later become a central focus of the Ritual of Oak and Mistletoe, a ceremony that led the Romans to call the Druids ‘barbarians.’
Another piece of the mistletoe puzzle comes from Norse mythology. In the Norse culture, the Mistletoe plant was a sign of love and peace. The story goes that the goddess, Figg lost her son, the god Baldur, to an arrow made of mistletoe. After his death, she vowed that Mistletoe would kiss anyone who passed beneath so long as it was never again used as a weapon.
The last piece of the puzzle leads us to the tradition that we know and love today. The kissing tradition as we know it appears to have started in 18th century England where it first became widely used as a Christmas decoration. The tradition spread quickly throughout the world. Beginning as a custom among the lower classes, it made its way to all classes, becoming a universal holiday ritual.
So next time you find yourself puckering up under the Mistletoe, remember that it all started with bird droppings, a parasite, barbarians, and a Norse goddess. Cheers!
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