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The Tradition of Mistletoe at Christmas

Updated April 28, 2022
The Tradition of Mistletoe at Christmas

Today, nearly everyone has heard or even participated in the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.

But not many know the origins of this custom and legends associated with the plant.

Mistletoe history dates back to ancient times. Celtic Druids, Ancient Greeks, and Norse pagans believed that the plant had magic powers.

As a result, it was commonly used in rituals and for medical purposes. But at that time, Christmas didn’t yet exist.

Only centuries later, during the Victorian Era, has mistletoe acquired connection with Christmas.

However, the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe has nothing to do with the Bible and stems from pagan symbolism.

Since the 19th century, mistletoe has been popularized by the media. It was and still is commonly mentioned in newspapers, literature, movies, and music.

While the plant is associated with fertility, eternal life, luck and has numerous medical applications, it’s important to note that mistletoe is, in fact, toxic.

Kissing under it won’t do any harm, but consuming it is not recommended.

Botanical Information

Mistletoe is a parasitic evergreen plant that can be found on different trees, including oaks, fir, pines, and apple trees. The plant has small, yellowish-green leaves and spherical, waxy, white berries.

There are numerous mistletoe species, with the most popular being European mistletoe and American mistletoe.

Both plants are used for medical purposes. Apart from European and American regions, mistletoe can be found in Asia and Australia.

Mistletoe was used since ancient times to improve digestion, stabilize heart rate, treat hysteria and amenorrhea, and heal wounds.

It was even believed to cure cancer and is used to treat tumors to this day. In other words, mistletoe is a versatile medical ingredient.

While mistletoe is sometimes used in medical applications, its berries are poisonous for animals.

Some scientists even consider mistletoe poisonous for humans, though its concentration in medicine is too insignificant to be dangerous.

For its toxicity, mistletoe was sometimes used to terminate unwanted pregnancies, despite its association with fertility.

Celtic Druids

Historical evidence regarding Celtic Druid times is hard to gather. Our knowledge of that time is mainly based on the writing of the Romans.

Furthermore, our ideas of Druids were largely re-interpreted during the 18th century.

Still, historians speculate that the tradition of using mistletoe at winter solstice festivals dates to the first century AD, the times of Celtic Druids.

As mistletoe can bloom even in winter, Druids viewed the plant as the symbol of everlasting life.

Celtic Druids also thought that mistletoe could improve fertility and gave it to women who could not conceive a child.

Special significance was given to mistletoe growing on oaks. It was believed to heal illnesses, protect against nightmares, and help to see the future.

Celtic Druids had a particular way of collecting mistletoe. First, they would climb a tree and cut the mistletoe off with a golden sickle.

Then, they would catch it in a cloak before it touched the ground. If the mistletoe fell to the ground, it would lose its magical powers.

Mistletoe was often called “the Celestial Tree” by ancient Celts and was considered to be of divine origin as it was closer than other plants to heaven.

This process was shown in the famous cartoon Asterix and Obelix when a druid Getafix was making potions from mistletoe. These very potions gave the Gaulish tribe strength.

However, Celtic Druids didn’t kiss under the mistletoe. This tradition appeared much later.

Ancient Greece

Historians debate on who started the tradition of kissing under a mistletoe. Some believe that it appeared in Ancient Greece.

Greeks associated mistletoe with fertility, as the plant could bloom throughout all year and on nearly any tree.

Mistletoe was used during the Saturnalia festival celebrating the winter solstice. The festival was held from December 17th to December 23rd.

It involves rich feasts and gift-giving. Sounds familiar? Indeed, ancient winter solstice festivals have a lot in common with modern Christmas.

Later, mistletoe was also used in marriage ceremonies and during wars as a sign of peace.

Greek mythology narrates about Aeneas, who has survived the battle at Troy and allegedly founded a community that later became the Roman Empire.

Aeneas searched for his dead father, and Sibyl told him that Aeneas must first pluck a golden bough from a tree to find the way. This golden bough was likely a mistletoe.

Nordic Paganism

Nordic pagans have used evergreen plants during winter solstice festivals to symbolize the soon arrival of spring and immortality.

These included holly, ivy, and mistletoe. In addition, pagans used the plants to make wreaths and decorate houses.

But decoration wasn’t the only purpose of mistletoe in Nordic countries.

A famous Norse myth narrates about a God of light and sun, Baldr, who was killed with a weapon made from mistletoe. Baldr was a son of Frigg and Odin and was also known as Baldr the Beautiful.

Baldr was cursed and saw dreams foretelling his death. So, to help him, his mother Frigg has put a spell on every animal, plant, and rock in the world not to hurt him.

So, she made Baldr invincible, and other Gods started using this for their advantage, sending Baldr to fight for them. But, of course, he returned from every battle.

However, Loki, the God of Mischief, found out that Frigg overlooked one plant when casting the magic spell as the plant didn’t grow on the ground but rather on other trees. As you may have guessed, the plant was mistletoe.

Loki made a weapon from mistletoe and convinced Hod, Baldr’s blind brother, to do the dirty work for him.

Baldr died from a single wound, and his mother’s tears turned into white berries. Instead of vanishing mistletoe from Earth for killing her son, Frigg has declared it the symbol of peace.

Mistletoe in Britain

The tradition of kissing under a mistletoe started in Ancient Greece but was forgotten for centuries.

It wasn’t until the 18th century when the same custom appeared in England. However, at first, the tradition wasn’t popular and became widely spread in the 19th century.

The tradition first caught up among lower classes and later has spread to the middle classes.

Historians don’t know for sure the origin of this custom, but servants could steal a kiss from any woman standing under a mistletoe.

Women believed that refusal to give a kiss would bring them bad luck for the entire year. People would even say that such a woman would end up being an old maid.

There was also a special etiquette related to kissing under a mistletoe. Men would pluck one mistletoe berry when kissing a lady on the cheek.

Only one kiss was allowed for each berry, so men were considered lucky if they found a large mistletoe. However, bearing in mind that mistletoe is toxic, this can be argued.

Today, the kissing bough is a traditional Christmas decoration in Britain. It usually is shaped like an arch with mistletoe hanging on top of it.

Apart from the plant, kissing boughs are often decorated with apples, nuts, bows, and other greenery.

Mistletoe in Culture

Not only Greek and Norse myths featured mentions of mistletoe. The surge in popularity of the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is related mainly to Victorian Era illustrations.

Harper’s Weekly and Illustrated London News have published images of people kissing or dancing under the plant numerous times.

English author from the Victorian Era Charles Dickens, who wrote a famous Christmas carol, has also mentioned mistletoe in “The Pickwick Papers.”

But not only English newspapers and authors have popularized the tradition in the world. For example, American newspaper Washington Irving has made remarks regarding mistletoe in the “Christmas Eve” issue.

In modern times, mistletoe is still an important element of pop culture.

The tradition has been mentioned in movies such as Batman Returns, Harry Potter and the Orden of Phoenix, Toy Story, Robin Hood, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Musicians also pay tribute to the custom.

Some of the most famous songs featuring mistletoe mentions include “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Bing Crosby, “Mistletoe and Holly” by Frank Sinatra, “Mr. Mistletoe” by Magnetic Fields, “Kissin’ by the Mistletoe” by Aretha Franklin, “Mistletoe” by Justin Bieber, and “Underneath the Mistletoe” by Sia.

Mistletoe is also featured on the emblem of the state of Oklahoma and is the official plant of UK county Herefordshire. The UK town Tenbury Wells holds an annual mistletoe festival and awards a Mistletoe Queen.

Other Mistletoe Meanings

Mistletoe is seen not solely as a symbol of fertility. In France, mistletoe is given as a gift signifying luck for New Year rather than Christmas.

Postcards sent from First World War Front at Christmas often featured mistletoe as a sign of peace.

The plant is also believed to ward off evil, and some people who hang it at their house at Christmas keep it for the full 12 months.

Then, the old mistletoe is burned the following Christmas to get rid of the evil spirits it captured.

Image credit: Pexels