To Kiss under the Mistletoe

During the winter solstice celebrations, several traditions were observed in the Northern Hemisphere. To entice the sun’s return, it was customary to light ritual fires; and to persuade trees, which had lost all their foliage, to replenish their green covering, it was traditional to decorate homes with evergreen garlands. This was especially true of the northern European nations who brought solstice decorations indoors during the icy winters. Evergreen decorations were also customary amongst the Romans during the festival of Saturnalia, which was held from the 17th  to 23rd December. Temples were decorated with greenery, especially holly, a symbol of health and happiness sacred to Saturn. Christians took this practice over during Christmas celebrations, and it prevails in modern times, when houses, churches, streets, and shops are decorated with holly, mistletoe, and other evergreens.

In the past, the mistletoe was considered sacred and used in religious ceremonies by the ancient Greeks and the northern nations of Europe, in particular, the Druids of Britain, France, and Ireland. Although the mistletoe, a parasitic plant, grows on various trees, the Druids held it in greatest veneration when found growing on the oak.

The mistletoe is an evergreen, its fresh green foliage growing on the bare leafless branches of trees during winter. Naturally, this was construed in ancient times as definite proof of a magic life force present in the plant. Hence, the mistletoe came to symbolise eternal life and fertility and was linked with sacred religious rites since antiquity. In all likelihood, this plant was brought into homes for protection during the winter solstice celebrations to shield occupants. 

Because of the mistletoe’s explicit connections with pagan practices, it was declared profane by the Christian Church and promptly prohibited from being brought into their sacred portals. However, traditional plants do not easily lose their ceremonial function, and the mistletoe is still found as a Christmas decoration in our homes during Yuletide. It is traditional in many parts of Europe to keep mistletoe and holly throughout the year from one Christmas to another, only to be renewed and replaced with fresh branches, thereby bringing good luck and ensuring protection from harm.

To associate kissing under the mistletoe with good fortune might be for several reasons. The Romans regarded the mistletoe as a symbol of peace, and when enemies met under it, it was said they discarded their weapons and declared a truce. The English custom for lovers to kiss under the mistletoe or a man having the right to kiss any lady beneath its branches dates to ancient times and was already traditional amongst the Saxons. No doubt, this is partly because of the mistletoe’s strong connection with fertility and sexual potency. 

However, the most likely origin of the mistletoe as a ‘kissing plant’ is linked to Norse mythology, relating to the god, Baldur’s, death and resurrection. When Baldur was born, his mother, the Norse goddess, Frigga, made every living thing promise not to harm him. Unfortunately, she overlooked the mistletoe plant, later used by the evil god Loki to kill the vegetation god Baldur. His death brought winter into the world, and then all creation was in deep mourning. One version explaining the custom of kissing under the mistletoe is that after Baldur was restored to life, the mistletoe was declared sacred, ordered by Frigg to bring love into the world instead of death and for all standing below its branches to share a kiss. But, there is also a different tale accounting for the custom. The plant so offended the gods of Norse mythology that it was consequently cursed by them to always have to look on while pretty girls were kissed under its leaves. No wonder then, that Shakespeare refers to the plant as the ‘baleful mistletoe’ in Titus Andronicus, alluding to its calamitous, woeful associations in myth and legend.126 According to superstition, any girl refusing to be kissed under the mistletoe risks dying unmarried.


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