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Under the Mistletoe

Once a year, tradition dictates that we head out into the forest and seek out mistletoe, which we then hang in our houses somewhere so we can trick people into kissing us by leading them to a spot underneath the plant.  This is great news for people with chronic halitosis or a compulsive affinity for garlic or some other condition that makes us less likely to get kissed, but for the rest of us, it’s maybe not such a boon. But how did all this start?

Let’s start by defining just what mistletoe is.  Mistletoe is a hemiparasitic plant that grows in trees, usually.  The term hemiparasite means that it gets part of its nutrients from the host plant, but still provides some of its own nutrients through its own means.  Like other green plants, mistletoe can perform photosynthesis, turning sunlight into nutrients. It just can’t do that enough to sustain itself.  Though the mistletoe tradition comes from Europe, there are literally hundreds of different varieties of mistletoe all over the world, on all six continents where trees grow.  Because of the bunches the plant grows in, sometimes they’re called witches’ brooms.  Despite the fact that mistletoe drains some of the nutrients from its host plant, it’s still a useful part of ecology, providing a source of food and nesting for birds.

All the green on this tree in Franche-Comté, France, is mistletoe.

The cultural significance of mistletoe dates way back.  The Vikings had a story in which the god of justice, Balder, dreamed he had died.  This freaked out his mother Frigg, the goddess of foreknowledge and wisdom, who set about making sure this didn’t happen.  She consulted with the gods of the four elements—earth, wind, fire, and water—and got them to acknowledge that they don’t have it in for Balder, and that they won’t do anything to harm him.  The trickster god Loki, however, made no such promises to Frigg, and he kills Balder with an arrow made of mistletoe, which is the only plant he was vulnerable to. Upon his death, Frigg and the other gods track Loki down and set him up for eternal torment.  Frigg is so distraught that she cries tears that are said to have become the berries that grow on mistletoe. Imagine the holiday tradition that could have grown out of that story!

Luckily, our mistletoe tradition comes from the Celts, and it’s a bit more benign.  The Celts, who once dominated most of Europe, believed that mistletoe had powers. Celtic Druids held that it was an all-purpose healing plant, as well as something that provided immunity to poisons.  It offered protection from witchcraft, kept evil spirits at bay, and was generally a source of good luck. It was also seen as a source of fertility in humans and animals. It was thought of as such a potent plant that if two enemies met underneath mistletoe growing in a tree, they were to abstain from fighting for at least a day.  From this belief grew the tradition of suspending mistletoe inside one’s own house, to encourage peace inside it at all times.

Mistletoe with berries—the white tears of Frigga.

This Celtic tradition lasted until the spread of Christianity in Europe.  Since Christians saw this as pagan mysticism, they dismissed it, and anyone who was part of the new religion wouldn’t dream of hanging mistletoe in their house, even as just a pretty decoration.  Naturally the plant was forbidden inside churches. It maintained its associations with fertility throughout the Middle Ages—old traditions die hard. By the 18th century, mistletoe enjoyed a comeback, and was figuring into Christmas celebrations everywhere, its pagan associations forgotten (or at least ignored).  Its new reputation was one of peace, joy and love. In the late 18th century we find the first references to the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe, which grew particularly popular during Victorian times. The tradition held that if you were caught under the mistletoe and refused to kiss the person who asked, it was bad luck, so be careful!  Another tradition held that for every kiss under a sprig of mistletoe, one of the berries was to be plucked, and once the berries were gone, the kissing stopped, so you might want to keep track of the berry count.

So… what’s next?  No pictures of that, please!  It’s 1890! Show some restraint!

Today you can head down to your local florist and pick up sprigs of mistletoe, and many churches will display the plant as a holiday decoration, the congregations unfazed by it, and even happy to see it.  In modern times we associate mistletoe with the Christmas season, despite the fact that the origins of the mistletoe myth suggested that its potent magic was in force year round, so there was always a reason to display it.

Image result for Getafix mistletoe
The fictional Druid Getafix frets about a mistletoe crisis in Goscinny & Uderzo’s The Golden Sickle, 1961.


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