The Inside Scoop on Mistletoe
I’ve long known mistletoe to be an old part of Christmas traditions. I did not know what in the world it looked like or why someone would need to receive a kiss if they were standing under it. The whole thing seemed rather silly. My family never used mistletoe during Christmas — most likely because the leafy green variety isn’t common in Minnesota— so this particular tradition was never something I paid attention to, until recently. As I get older, I find that I’m increasingly pulled in by the history of traditions and what holds our human fascination over the years, decades and even centuries.
No doubt the first image that comes to mind when we think of mistletoe is a young couple bashfully realizing they’re standing beneath a sprig of mistletoe. Perhaps, a young lad sneakily holding a bit above a desired beaus head to win himself the permission to kiss the object of his affection. Washington Irving included in a footnote about Christmas traditions in his 1819-20 The Sketch Book Christmas Eve,
“The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.”
Kissing beneath the mistletoe is a fairly well known holiday tradition, but most of us don’t know why. Most likely you’ve never stopped to wonder why in the world people hang these strange plants with their white berries in their homes. Well, if you’re curious, as I was, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. It’s a fascinating plant. From an entire Norse legend, to medicinal and magical properties, there’s something for everyone.
They used the plant as a cure-all for medicinal purposes, including use for fertility and as an aphrodisiac. These plants are toxic, however, so please don’t go out and try this for yourselves. There is ongoing research into the medicinal properties of the mistletoe, but it’s best to leave it to the pros.
It was also believed that it would keep away evil spirits, protect children from the faerie, increase luck, encourage love interests and even help repel werewolves.
Perhaps the strongest correlation between our current tradition and its origin is the story of the much loved god Baldur and his unfortunate demise.
Baldur was a Norse god who was the son of Odin and Frigg and he was a beautiful and wise god who was loved by all gods and creatures. He was good, kind, and brought happiness to all those around him and no one wished him harm. Well, there was one exception. Loki wasn’t exactly pleased with Baldur’s unanimous support and held a bit of a grudge.
Baldur began to have dreams of impending personal doom, and since dreams were often prophetic, he was deeply affected. His father Odin went in search of answers for Baldur, learning from a seer that Baldur was indeed in mortal danger. Learning of this, his mother Frigg took it upon herself to glean from all creation a promise not to harm Baldur. Such promises were easily and freely given by all who were asked, so loved was the young golden god.
This meant that Baldur was now nearly invincible and the gods thought it was hilarious to throw projectiles of all sorts to watch them bounce off his perfect frame. Loki saw an opportunity, and he wasn’t one to squander a ripe idea. He cloaked himself in the image of an old woman and went to Frigg with the intention of squeezing some fresh information from her. Through the course of their discussion, Frigg mentioned in passing that she had not asked an oath from the young and harmless mistletoe plant for it deemed no real threat to Baldur. Such information was exactly what Loki was looking for and he quickly excused himself, dropped his disguise and fashioned a spear from a mistletoe plant.
Now Loki had a spear that was Baldur’s only weakness, but he couldn’t very well use the weapon himself. It had to look like an accident, so he went to Baldur’s blind brother, Hodur, and asked him if he would also like to join the new game of pelting Baldur. Hodur mocked Loki’s ridiculous idea. Not only was he unable to see Baldur, but he also had nothing with which to throw. The ever kind Loki had an answer to both of these problems, offering Hodur the spear as well as helping him to line up the shot. Hodur’s innocent throw struck true, piercing his brother through and instantly killing him. The shock of the moment stunned all those witness and a deep sadness overtook all the gods and creatures, because Baldur had truly been loved. Frigg, not wanting to accept the death of her son, asked if anyone was willing to go to the goddess Hel and bring Baldur back to them.
The messenger god, Hermod went to Hel, asking her to release Baldur back to them. She agreed, but only if all of creation would weep for Baldur — to prove how much he had been loved. Indeed all of creation did weep, except for one. A giantess named Thokk. It is widely held that this giantess was truly Loki in disguise. Baldur would then remain with Hel in the underworld until he would later be reborn.
Frigg mourned her son, crying tears which formed white berries on the mistletoe and she stated that from this time on, mistletoe would bring love into the world and not death. In honor of Baldur, any two people who passed beneath the mistletoe should kiss and spread the love that Baldur had inspired in so many.
There you have it, the many— but certainly not all — reasons mistletoe has remained such a powerful holiday symbol. It’s a good luck charm, magical healer and a love magnet. Over time no doubt, a custom of laying down arms when meeting beneath mistletoe was spread to young couples who wished to bridge the impropriety of sharing a kiss. In the spirit of love and giving this tradition lives on and remains strong, whether or not we understand why.
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