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Do You Know the Tradition of Mistletoe at Christmas?

written by: Noreen Gunnell • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 11/26/2012

How did the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe begin? The origins of this quaint custom can be explained by the role of mistletoe in ancient beliefs and myths.

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    800px-Viscum album 002 Ah…to live like mistletoe. This relaxed plant works as little as possible, gets a place of honor at the most festive time of year, and is linked to a quaint custom involving the romantic activity of kissing.

    Phoradendron is the botanical name of American mistletoe, which is the “kissing-under" type hung in doorways and other spots throughout homes at Christmas. All told, there are around 1,300 varieties of the plant.

    In Greek, phoradendron means thief of the tree, which refers to mistletoe’s hemi-parasitic nature. Mistletoe has the greenery necessary for photosynthesis--and uses it--but gets a large portion of its nutrients from host trees. American mistletoe travels to new trees via bird beaks or animal fur, digs its roots in and spreads into thick, jumbled branches high in its captive's branches. Mistletoe just moves in and starts mooching.

    Are you wondering why people kill under the mistletoe? To answer that, we have to examine the history of mistletoe and the significance of mistletoe in ancient mythologies.Christmas throughout Christendom - Under the Mistletoe 

    Druids believed the plant to have magical and healing properties. The mysterious manner in which mistletoe appeared on trees, due to its habit of hitchhiking on birds, created its magical mystique - and mistletoe truly does have medicinal properties. The Druids, however, revered it so much that priests clad in white held ceremonies in which they used a golden sickle to cut the venerable plant from oak trees.

    Bulls were sacrificed beneath these trees during the ceremony as well. In another custom, if two enemies found themselves standing under a tree bearing mistletoe, they would put down their weapons and have a truce until the following day. It is believed that the tradition of hanging mistletoe during the Christmas season may have grown from this Druid practice, and that the plant symbolized peace.

    Death of Balder 

    Yet, this Druid tale of peace and mistletoe does not fully explain why people kiss under mistletoe to this day. Rather, the sweet, yuletide custom has its roots in a Norse myth of maternal love, loss and gratitude in Valhalla. Frigg, wife of the god Odin, had a premonition about the death of her son Balder the Beautiful (god of sunlight).

    Trying to protect her son, Frigg made all living and non-living things swear to not harm her son. All, that is, but the young mistletoe which she considered harmless. Loki, a trickster who lived amongst the gods, knew of this single omission and had Balder’s blind brother Hod (god of darkness) throw an arrow of mistletoe at his brother during a game designed to test the oath Frigg had demanded.

    From Sorrow To Happiness

    The arrow killed Balder. His mother Frigg was deeply grieved. There are various versions of the Balder myth and they often differ at this point. The one that best explains why people kiss under the mistletoe ends happily with Balder brought back to life. A grateful Frigg turns the mistletoe into a symbol of love that guarantees a kiss to everyone who walks under it.

    So, why do people kiss under mistletoe? The answer lies in the myth of Balder, the beliefs of the Druids, and the early Catholic Church's practice of holding religious holidays around the time of popular pagan celebrations. Mistletoe, an evergreen plant, was also part of ancient winter solstice festivities. Naturally, when the 25th of December was chosen as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus, mistletoe made the transition from winter solstice and became a Christmas decoration.

    The kiss guaranteed by Frigg stayed with the plant throughout the centuries and became a tradition as familiar as Christmas stockings hung by the fire.