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Christmas Mistletoe

"Oh ho, the mistletoe, hung where you can see..."

Mistletoe is the most romantic of the Christmas traditions. Along with spin the bottle, being Irish on St. Patrick's Day and the kissing booths of old, kissing under the mistletoe is one of the most innocent ways of being able to kiss or receive a kiss from someone you might like to see if there might be a spark there. A countless number of relationships over the decades have undoubtedly started as a direct result of this tradition.

These days, this is one of those few Christmas traditions that seems to have become more a part of popular culture than a tradition that can be seen in practice around Christmastime. Sure mistletoe is represented on products, in music, on hats, etc., but it seems to rarely be seen hanging up over a threshold anymore in the United States. As a result, this can be an unexpected and entertaining addition to any Christmas party. Simply hang a piece of mistletoe over any threshold and see if anyone takes advantage of it; it is an instant way to spruce up a Christmas party. Whether it be from people trying to avoid it, or people trying to get someone they might like underneath of it, mistletoe instantly adds a different level of excitement and opportunities for memorable occurrences wherever it might be hanging.

What many people don't know is that mistletoe is actually a partially parasitic plant and poisonous. Given the romantic connotations of mistletoe, some romantic cynics may find it appropriate that the plant is partially parasitic, sucking the life out of its host tree, and poisonous. At Ovation for Christmas, we side with those who see it as a symbol of love and peace at Christmas. But why is it called mistletoe? What are the characteristics of the plant? And why is this plant associated with Christmas and a tradition that requires a man and a woman to kiss if they are caught underneath it?

Overview of Mistletoe Meaning and Characteristics

This is an overview of Mistletoe and its associations with Christmas. If you are only interested in one aspect of the plant, a more in depth treatment is provided beneath this section.

  1. It is called mistletoe because of a belief the plant grew out of bird droppings.
    1. It is derived from the Old English word "misteltan" which roughly translates to "dung on a twig."
  2. There are many species of mistletoe but the two that are mainly associated with Christmas have white, sticky berries and small, tough green leaves.
  3. Mistletoe is a partially parasitic plant and can inhabit a number of different host trees.
  4. Mistletoe is poisonous, especially to pets and small children, so don't let them play with it.
  5. The plant is an evergreen, and, therefore, was seen as a sign of the continuation of life in pagan times.

A Quick Progression of the Origin of the Mistletoe Kiss Tradition through Time

  1. The kissing tradition has a few possible origins, but is most likely a progression, where things were added and subtracted through time.

Mistletoe and the Heathens: Peace and Love

  1. Pagans associated mistletoe with fertility and also believed it could ward off evil spirits.
  2. It was harvested by Druid priests in special ceremonies and given out for people to hang in their home.
  3. It was believed to have peaceful powers and when enemies met under mistletoe a truce was called for the day.

Norse Mythology and Mistletoe

  1. In Norse mythology, the blind god of winter, Hoder, is said to have been tricked into killing his brother, Balder, the god of the summer sun, with a mistletoe arrow.
    1. In one version of the myth, after Balder's mother, Frigga, brought him back to life, she vowed no more harm would come from mistletoe. Frigga vowed that from that moment on, anyone passing underneath the mistletoe shall be greeted with love and a kiss. It is said the tears she cried for Balder became mistletoe's white berries.

Mistletoe from Saturnalia to Christmas

  1. During the overtly sexual winter Roman festival of Saturnalia, mistletoe was hung in the home and used as a place for greeting.
  2. As many of the traditions of the Saturnalia festival were adopted when Christmas usurped Saturnalia in ancient Rome, the tradition of kissing or embracing under the mistletoe also became part of the Christmas festivities.

Origin of Mistletoe Kiss and Christmas

  1. Kissing under the mistletoe's first association with Christmas was in Rome after many traditions associated with Saturnalia were usurped by the Christian holiday.
  2. This progressed to the "kissing bough" of Victorian England, which were elaborately decorated evergreen balls with a sprig of mistletoe on the bottom that were hung from a rafter by the entrance to the home and used as a place of greeting.
  3. The tradition was that when a gentleman kissed a lady under the mistletoe, he had to pluck a berry. When all the berries were gone, the magic of the kissing bough was gone.

Mistletoe Origin in America

  1. This tradition made its way to the American celebration of Christmas, though the "kissing bough" is no longer really used here nor is the tradition of plucking berries.
  2. Though the intention is the same, in America we mostly just hang up a sprig of mistletoe, though we may tie it together with a Christmas ribbon.
IDEA: Hang a Kissing Bough instead of Mistletoe at a party and explain the tradition of plucking berries.

Don't Know the Meaning of the Word Mistletoe?

  1. The word Mistletoe originates from the Old English word "misteltan."
    1. This word is comprised from the Anglo-Saxson words "Mistel" = "dung" and "Tan" = "twig."
    2. This means the word's literal translation is "dung on a twig."

Why is Mistletoe Named after Bird Droppings?

  1. The reasoning behind this odd naming for a plant is logical when the facts are observed.
    1. Some might see the resemblance of the white mistletoe berries and the appearance of bird droppings. But the real origin for the meaning of the word comes from the ancient belief that the plant magically grew out of bird droppings.
      1. The reasoning for this combination of words is people observed that when a bird made its dropping on a tree, later mistletoe would appear to grow from it in the spot where the dropping landed.
    2. Birds, like the mistle thrush that eat the mistletoe berries, would carry the seeds from tree to tree or branch to branch and then deposited the seeds either from their beak or in their droppings.
    3. The berries have a sticky juice in them which stays on the seeds even after they are deposited in the bird's droppings and helps the seeds stick to the tree branches.
  2. Therefore, the observation that mistletoe can grow out of bird droppings is correct, if not somewhat misguided.
  3. Also, the sticky juice in the berries known as viscin has been referred to as "bird lime" and been used to catch birds by hand by wrapping the substance around branches that birds would perch on, forming a "glue" causing them to get stuck and making them easy to catch.

Characteristics of Mistletoe

  1. There are hundreds of species of plants known as mistletoe. Many varieties, especially the ones associated with Christmas, have small, leathery green leaves and pearly white, almost translucent, sticky berries and grow up in the branches of certain trees.
    1. The color and consistency of the berries are the most likely reasoning for the pagan association of mistletoe with fertility.

Mistletoe is a Partial Parasite

  1. Almost all mistletoe is a hemiparasite, meaning it pilfers water and minerals from its host tree but it can produce its own food through photosynthesis.
    1. While most mistletoe species merely weaken their host trees, as killing the tree would be detrimental to its own survival, some varieties or heavy infestations have been rarely known to kill the host tree.

What Tree Does Mistletoe Grow In?

  1. Mistletoe infests a variety of trees including apple, fir, juniper, poplar, pine, and, less frequently, oak.

Can I Eat Mistletoe?

  1. NO! The mistletoe plant is poisonous. There is debate as to the lethality of it, but it definitely causes gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea and stomach cramps. It would definitely ruin your evening.
    1. For this reason, if you are hanging it up in your house, it is important to keep it away from children and pets.

What Species of Mistletoe is Used for Christmas?

  1. The two most common species of mistletoe that are commercially harvested for Christmas are commonly known as European mistletoe and North American mistletoe.
  2. Both of these species of mistletoe are in the order of Santalales and family of Santalaceae.
    1. Ovation for Christmas just thought that the scientific community classed these Christmas mistletoe appropriately, filing them under "Santa" and wanted to give this recognition. Bravo scientists!
  3. Although the family of Santalaceae seems most appropriate for mistletoe and is the family of the two most commercially harvested mistletoe for Christmas, the largest family of mistletoe is actually the family of Loranthaceae.
  4. These are the two primary species of mistletoe harvested for Christmas: Viscum album and Phoradendron flavescens
    1. The species Viscum album is most commonly referred to when discussing mistletoe in Europe and is often called "European Mistletoe" or "Common Mistletoe."
    2. The species Phoradendron flavescens is the species of mistletoe that is most often harvested for Christmas decoration in North America.

Interesting Facts about Mistletoe

  1. Many species of birds actually nest in different species of mistletoe.
  2. Medicinally mistletoe has been known to treat circulatory and respiratory problems and its extract, one of which is sold under the brand name Iscador, is used to help treat cancer.
    1. This treatment method was popularized by Suzanne Somers when she chose to use the mistletoe extract in lieu of chemotherapy when she was treated for breast cancer.
  3. Mistletoe is an evergreen and one of the few plants with leaves and not needles that stays green in the winter. When it grows in trees that lose their leaves in winter, such as the apple or oak, it is more noticeable.
    1. Just as with most other vegetation associated with Christmas, mistletoe is an evergreen plant and, as such, was used in pagan winter festivals, like Saturnalia, and ceremonies as it was associated with the promise that life will return in the spring.

The Druids and Mistletoe

  1. As with many of the traditions associated with Christmas, kissing under the mistletoe has its origins in pagan rituals and mythology.

Mistletoe: The Most Sacred of Plants

  1. Celtic Druids in Ireland, Gaul and Britain considered oak trees to be the most sacred of all the trees. They also believed mistletoe to be sacred as it grew high up in trees with no contact with the earth. Therefore, mistletoe which grew from the oak was considered the soul of the sacred oak tree and used in pagan ceremonies.
    1. The most notable Druid ceremony involving mistletoe took place five days after the new moon following the winter solstice.
    2. Druid priests dressed in white robes would cut the mistletoe down from the oak trees it was growing on with a golden sickle as followers below would catch the mistletoe in outstretched white sheets taking care not to allow it to hit the ground.
      1. They believed mistletoe should never come in contact with the ground as they believed it to be holy and placed in the trees by the gods.
    3. The Druid priests would then sacrifice two white bulls as a gift to the gods and pass out sprigs of the sacred mistletoe to the people.

Why Did Druids Hang Mistletoe in the Doorway of their Household?

  1. After being given mistletoe by the Druid priests, people would hang these sprigs in the doorways of their households to ward off evil spirits, thunder and lightning, and as a gesture of goodwill welcoming anyone who might enter with a friendly kiss.
    1. This tradition of hanging sprigs of mistletoe in the home carried forward to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was very sexual in nature and the main winter festival from which the traditions of the modern holiday of Christmas largely borrowed.

Look Mistletoe! I Call a Truce.

  1. This tradition of peace associated with mistletoe also carried over to the battlefield.
    1. If enemies encountered each other under a tree with mistletoe, it was seen as a sign of peace and they would observe a truce for the day.

Have a Problem? Mistletoe Can Help!

  1. Mistletoe was also believed to have magical healing powers and was known as "all-heal" by the Celts.
    1. Besides warding off evil spirits, mistletoe was believed to be an aphrodisiac, a cure for illnesses, a fertility drug, and an antidote for poison.
      1. For this and other reasons, Mistletoe has also been referred to as "the golden bough"

The Norse Legend and Mistletoe

  1. The myth goes that the king and queen of all Norse gods, Odin and Frigga, also referred to as Frigg, had a son named Balder, also known as Baldr or Baldur.

What are They gods of?

  1. In Norse mythology, Balder is the god of, among other things, the summer sun, joy, innocence, light, and purity, and Frigga is the goddess of love, fertility and motherhood.
    1. In other words, in a sense Balder is the god of part of what the mistletoe plant has come to represent: a symbol in the winter of a promise of the return of summer and joy and Frigga represents the association of the mistletoe plant with love and fertility and the tradition of kissing under it.

How Did Mistletoe become Associated with These gods?

Balder Has a Dream

  1. Balder had a horrible dream of his own death. This panicked Frigga, as she worried that Balder's death would bring with it the end of life on earth.
    1. Some variations of the myth say that both Balder and Frigga had a dream or dreams about Balder's demise, others say that Frigga alone had the dream about her son's death.

And You Thought You Had an Overprotective Mother...

  1. Frigga, being the overprotective mother she was, made all the plants and animals as well as the four elements, all poisons and diseases take an oath not to harm Balder in an effort to prevent this dream from becoming a reality. (Basically she went to his school and told everyone not to hurt him except for one).
    1. Depending on the version of the myth, Frigga neglected to make mistletoe take the oath either because she overlooked it since it didn't grow on nor under the earth or because she didn't think it was dangerous or too young to demand its oath.

I Will Consider that a Challenge

  1. The newfound invulnerability of Balder angered the god of mischief, lies, evil, and deception, Loki, and he became determined to find a way to kill Balder. (Basically Frigga's action made the bully of the school more determined to find a way to hurt Balder).
  2. Loki found out that mistletoe hadn't made the pledge to do no harm to Balder, so he fashioned an arrow out of mistletoe. Other variations of the myth claim it was a spear.
  3. The gods were all throwing spears and shooting arrows at Balder for fun since nothing could harm him.
  4. Loki used this revelry to trick the blind brother of Balder, Hoder, the god of winter and darkness, into shooting Balder dead with the mistletoe arrow or spear.

Mistletoe's White, Pearly Berries

  1. Upon hearing about the death of her son, Frigga cried white, pearly tears.
    1. It is said that the white, pearly berries of mistletoe formed from these tears Frigga shed for her slain beloved son, Balder.

Failure to Bring Balder Back from the Dead

  1. In the real Norse mythology, Frigga and Odin sent Hermod, messenger of the gods, to the underworld to convince Hel, the goddess of the dead, to let Balder go and return to life.
    1. Odin even allowed Hermod to ride Sleipnir, the possible precursor to Sinterklaas' white horse and Santa's reindeer, for the task.
  2. Hel agreed under the condition that all living beings cry for Balder. If they all cried for Balder, she would release him.
  3. All did cry for Balder, except for one old woman, Thokk, who refused. This woman was later discovered to be Loki in disguise.

Mistletoe Becomes Sacred to Frigga: A Decree to Kiss

  1. Some say the death of her son made mistletoe the sacred plant of Frigga and caused her to try to change the stigma associated with mistletoe.
    1. She was determined that no harm would come to anyone else from mistletoe and decreed that anyone else who should pass under the mistletoe would be greeted with a kiss.

A Version Where Balder is Brought Back from the Dead

  1. In the version of this myth where Frigga or the gods brought Balder back to life, it isn't until Balder is brought back to life that Frigga rejoices and changes the negative connotation of the mistletoe plant to one of love.
    1. We at Ovation for Christmas noticed that since Balder was the god of the summer sun and light and Hoder was the god of winter and darkness, when Hoder killed Balder it was symbolic of the loss of life in winter and its subsequent rebirth when Balder was brought back to life, or when the summer returned. Mistletoe was kind of the intermediary in that happening providing the link between winter and death and summer and life; mistletoe becomes the literal connection between the seasons.

Not the Kissing Part Again... Origins of Kissing Under the Mistletoe in The United States

  1. There are many possible origins for the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. However, the most likely explanation is that this tradition evolved through time, borrowing from various sources through time and locations.
    1. The most likely precursors of the tradition are Mistletoe's pagan connection with fertility, the Celts beliefs, ceremonies and practices, the old Norse myth of the death of Balder, and the Roman winter festival of Saturnalia.

England and The Kissing Bough

  1. The most direct connection to why people in the United States celebrate this tradition the way they do comes from England and the "kissing bough."
  2. Holy boughs began in England and sometimes included a reference to the nativity.
    1. They were also later known as kissing boughs, kissing balls, kissing bunches, kissing rings, or simply mistletoe boughs.

What is a Kissing Bough?

  1. The English would create a kissing bough by weaving a ball or a hoop out of pliable woods, such ash, hazel or willow, and overlay it with evergreen garlands, such as holly, fir, pine or rosemary to create the structure.
    1. They would sometimes place three small dolls to represent the Holy Family in the middle or a solitary doll to represent the Christ Child.
    2. They also began to elaborately decorate the boughs with ribbons, apples, oranges, nuts, lighted candles and other ornamentation.
      1. Later a sprig of mistletoe would be hung from the center of the bough.
  2. These spheres would then be blessed by a local priest and hung up in the home from a beam just inside the entrance and anyone who came to visit during the Christmas season would be welcomed under this Holy bough and would embrace as a gesture of peace and goodwill and that all differences had been forgotten.

Christmas Traditions are Intertwined

  1. Kissing boughs actually were adapted in England from a similar practice in much of Europe at the time, especially Germany, of cutting off the top of a pine tree and hanging it up upside down inside the home in a similar manner to the kissing bough and with the same connotations.
    1. This tradition in Germany was a precursor for the Christmas tree.
    2. This practice of bringing evergreens into the home during the winter also harkens back to the pagan Roman festival of Saturnalia where Romans did the same thing to protect the life of the tree until spring.

Christmas and its Traditions, Including Kissing Boughs, are Banned

  1. The Puritan Reformation that came to a head in the middle of the 17th century made kissing boughs illegal and largely put an end to the celebration of Christmas and all of its pagan decorations for a little over a decade in England until 1660 when parliament reinstated the monarchy.

Christmas Traditions Change and are Lost

  1. After Christmas celebrations were reinstated, many Christmas traditions were changed and certain traditions were lost. The kissing bough continued, but the dolls representing the Holy Family were largely lost.
    1. Though the Holy bough gradually became known as the holly bough and then simply the kissing bough and the embrace of peace and goodwill transitioned into a more romantic connotation by Victorian times.

Let's Play a "Mistletoe" Love Game Victorian Style

  1. By Victorian times, the embrace under the holly bough had largely been circumvented by the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe as the mistletoe became a more prominent part of the custom.
    1. When a lady was caught underneath the bough she would allow herself to be kissed by a gentleman who would then pluck one of the mistletoe berries and give it to the lady.
    2. The magic of each sprig of mistletoe only lasted as long as there were still berries on the sprig.
      1. When the berries were gone, no more kissing under that bough was allowed.
    3. Legend states that those who kiss under the mistletoe would have a long, happy marriage and that if a lady remained unkissed underneath the mistletoe, she would remain single for another year.
    4. Some legends state that after all the berries are plucked, the mistletoe sprig must be burned to ensure that the magic comes true.

Mistletoe is Coming to America

  1. Mistletoe, along with many other traditions, came to America with immigration.
  2. In the United States, the mistletoe sprig is almost never hung as part of a kissing bough or in conjunction with other evergreens, but is rather hung on its own with maybe a bit of flourish like a ribbon the only real connection to the more elaborate kissing bough from England.
  3. These days the tradition of mistletoe is not seen in practice nearly as frequently as it used to be in America. It is a popular culture symbol, more often seen printed on shirts and other attire and affixed to hats than real mistletoe can be seen hanging from doorways.
    1. The tradition of hanging mistletoe, whether it be simply hanging a solitary sprig over a threshhold or affixing a sprig to a kissing bough or ball which is already hung, is still popular during celebrations of the Christmas season in Europe and Canada.
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