Kiss Me Under the Mistletoe

69fe25673dfddf4986e3f23706d42f53Then the woman asked: ‘Have all things taken oaths to spare Baldr?’ and Frigg answered: ‘There grows a tree-sprout alone westward of Valhall: it is called Mistletoe; I thought it too young to ask the oath of.’ Then straightway the woman turned away; but Loki took Mistletoe and pulled it up and went to the Thing.

–Snorri Sturlson, “Gylfaginning.”

A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. […] They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.

–Pliny the Elder, “Natural History.”

Mistletoe is the unlikely matchmaker of the winter season. Sprigs of it are placed on mantelpieces, or hanging over thresholds, and single men or women may linger in their near vicinity in hopes of a kiss, or a little bit more. The idea of kissing under the mistletoe has wormed it’s way thoroughly into the traditions and literature of much of the Western world. And yet, sometimes, you look up what Mistletoe actually is and you find yourself asking the inevitable: “but why?”

What Is Mistletoe?

Mistletoe is a parasite. Like evergreen trees and holly, it’s claim to fame lies in its ability to stay green throughout the long, bitter winters that plague those people not fortunately enough to live in a sub-tropical climate. It does this by sucking the nutrients out of host trees. Large infestations of mistletoe can kill trees, and in some places it’s so common that people in California cut it and sell it by the box on Ebay.

An easy way to remember how to recognize mistletoe is by it’s soft, rounded leaves and white berries. It is easily confused with holly, but it could not be more different–holly has sharp, spiked leaves and red berries.

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Mistletoe Traditions

There are two sources for the tradition of mistletoe at Christmas, and neither is very helpful. The first and the oldest is an account found in the Natural History of Pliny the Elder. Pliny was a Roman scholar and in 77 he began work on a ten volume work that would become one of the world’s earliest encyclopedias. In it, he describes something we know now as the “Ritual of the Oak and Mistletoe” as it would have been conducted by Celtic druids in the first century AD. He describes the correct time for cutting the mistletoe and some of the pageantry surrounding it. There is no doubt that the Celts considered it a sacred plant, but why it was so sacred seems to be a bit vague. They considered the plant a cure for infertility and all manner of poison, but if there was any mythology associated with it, it has long since been lost to us.

The second is an Icelandic retelling of an old Norse legend. The legend is generally believed to date back to sometime in 800s AD, the retelling is believed to have been written sometime around 1220 by an Iceland scholar and politician named Snorri Sturlson. The myth goes like this.

Balder, god of light and goodness and eldest son of Odin and Frigga, rulers of the Norse Gods, was suffering from premonitions of his death. Concerned for her son’s safety, Frigga went about the earth, obtaining vows from every thing animate or inanimate not to hurt her son. Satisfied that she had assured his safety she returned to Asgard, home of the gods, to report her success. Interested in testing this theory out, the other gods made sport of throwing things at Balder and watching them bounce off harmlessly.

All this attention being lavished on Balder made Loki jealous, and he went to Frigga in disguise as an old woman and asked her what was going on. Frigga told him and Loki in disguise asked if she was sure all things had sworn. All but the mistletoe, Frigga said, for it seemed too young to ask to swear. (Some translations say that it seemed too weak and harmless to be a threat.) Loki went off in haste and plucked the mistletoe, shaping it into an arrow. Returning to the gathering he saw Hoder, Balder’s blind brother, sitting at a distance from the other gods. Asking why he did not join in honoring his brother Hoder said he could not see where to throw. Loki offered him the mistletoe and helped him aim it. The arrow flew true, striking Balder dead.

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Why Do We Kiss Under Mistletoe?

This leads us at last to our final question–why do we kiss under mistletoe? The answer to that question is the unsatisfying and enigmatic–nobody is entirely sure. If it was used in fertility rites as the Druidic custom seems to imply, then the act of kissing may be a token nod to a ritual that involved a great deal more. If someone standing under mistletoe is not kissed it is considered a sign of bad luck. The implications of the Nordic legend must also be taken into consideration. While it seems unlikely that a plant used once as a murder weapon would be subsequently revered, it is possible that it became feared as an ill omen to be warded off.

Of course, like many traditions we now take for granted, it is also possible that the practice of kissing under the mistletoe is not as ancient as one might think, and has little or nothing to do with the ancient practices surrounding the parasite. The practice of kissing under the mistletoe is believed to date back to the Victorian era, where it first became popular with the serving class. A variation on the tradition states that with each kiss a berry must be removed from the bough, and kissing stops when all the berries are gone.


 

Katie Lynn Daniels is the author of Supervillain of the Day, and the mastermind behind Vaguely Circular. She blogs about science and things that are peripherally related to science. You can read all her posts here.


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