Mistletoe’s history is a long and interesting one. There are references to “kissing under the mistletoe” in Celtic rituals and North mythology. The Druids considered mistletoe a sacred plant, believed to have medicinal qualities and mysterious supernatural powers. Mistletoe has long been regarded as an aphrodisiac and fertility herb.
Going back to Norse and Scandinavian customs, it was traditional that if, while out in the woods, you happened to find yourself under mistletoe while encountering a foe, you both had to lay down your arms until the following day.
Central to the history of mistletoe is the Norse myth of Baldur. Baldur’s mother was the goddess, Friga. When Baldur was born, she made each and every plant, animal and inanimate object promise not to harm him. But Frigga overlooked the mistletoe plant, and the mischievous god of Norse myths, Loki, took advantage of this oversight. Loki tricked one of the other gods into killing Baldur with a spear made of mistletoe. Some versions of this myth relate it was agreed, after the death of Baldur, that thenceforth mistletoe would bring love rather than death into the world, and that any two people passing under mistletoe would exchange a kiss in memory of Baldur. Others add that the tears Frigga shed over the slain Baldur became the mistletoe berries.
Two hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Druids used mistletoe to celebrate the coming of winter. They would gather this evergreen plant that is parasitic upon other trees and used it to decorate their homes. They believed the plant had special healing powers for everything from female infertility to poison ingestion. Scandinavians also thought of mistletoe as a plant of peace and harmony. They associated mistletoe with their goddess of love, Frigga. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe probably derived from this belief. The early church banned the use of mistletoe in Christmas celebrations because of its pagan origins. Instead, church fathers suggested the use of holly as an appropriate substitute for Christmas greenery.
Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites. One belief was that it has power to bestow fertility. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses kiss and make-up.
Later, the eighteenth-century English credited with a certain magical appeal called a kissing ball. At Christmas time a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill. If the girl remained unkissed, she cannot expect not to marry the following year. The original custom was that a berry was picked from the sprig of Mistletoe before the person could be kissed and when all the berries had gone, there could be no more kissing!! As Washington Irving wrote in the 1800s, “young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under [mistletoe], plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.”
Even if the pagan significance has been long forgotten, the custom of exchanging a kiss under the mistletoe can still be found in many European countries as well as in Canada. Thus if a couple in love exchanges a kiss under the mistletoe, it is interpreted as a promise to marry, as well as a prediction of happiness and long life. In France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year’s Day: “Au gui l’An neuf” (Mistletoe for the New Year). Today, kisses can be exchanged under the mistletoe any time during the holiday season.