There are plenty of Christmas traditions – from hanging up stockings near a fireplace, decorating a Christmas tree and singing carols. Putting up mistletoe in the doorway is one of the more stranger traditions as you might get an unexpected kiss from the person next to you. But why do we kiss underneath the mistletoe? Where did the tradition come from and what’s the meaning of the mistletoe?
Before we dive right in, let’s quickly take a look at what mistletoe actually is. Mistletoe is a type of plant that remains green even during winter. It’s a partial parasite that attaches onto tree branches and trunks and feeds off the nutrients from the host tree. However, it can generate its own nutrients via photosynthesis. It’s mostly found on tree species like apple, sycamore, ash and hawthorn. Over time, mistletoe can damage the tree if not managed.
The mistletoe that is used for Christmas decoration is native to North America and Europe. The growth of the plant is spread from tree to tree by birds that eat the mistletoe berries. When the bird squishes the fruit with its beak some of the sticky syrup will cling to its beak. As the animal wipes its beak against another tree branch, the seeds are spread. While birds can safely consume mistletoe berries, they’re not safe for human consumption.
Mistletoes are often hung above doors during the festive season. In North America and Europe, when two people stand beneath a mistletoe they kiss. The kiss signifies romance and friendship. A girl that is not kissed while standing under the mistletoe will not marry the following year. So when couples kiss beneath it, it signifies their commitment to marry.
The tradition has been linked back to Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival to honor the god Saturn during late December. There are two common beliefs involving kissing under the mistletoe. First, it’s said to promote fertility because the plant provides a life-giving power. Scandinavian tradition has it that the plant brings peace and enemies could call a truce and make up later.
The legend of Baldur from ancient Norse mythology is most commonly cited as the origin of the mistletoe tradition. The lore has it that Norse god Baldur was killed by Loki, another Norse god, using a weapon made of mistletoe.
Baldur was the son of Frigga, the goddess of love and marriage. She loved her son so much that she made all the plants and animals on earth promise that they would not hurt her son. But she had overlooked the mistletoe. Loki, the god of mischief, recognised her mistake and fashioned the tip of an arrow from the plant. Some versions of the tale continue that Frigga’s tears for her son turned into the white berries on the mistletoe and brought Baldur back to life. Overjoyed, Fridge kissed all who passed beneath the mistletoe plant. To those who stand under the mistletoe no harm should come, only love.