Mistletoe makes its annual appearance each December as millions of Americans hang a sprig of it in their doorways during the holiday season. According to custom, if a woman is caught standing under the mistletoe, a man may kiss her. So what is it about this little plant that gives it power to make people pucker up?
For centuries, mistletoe has been considered a plant that increases life and fertility. The history of mistletoe, which can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, is long, strange, and full of mythology. Mistletoe is a relative of sandalwood. It is parasitic in nature and attaches itself onto other trees to steal its host’s water and nutrients. The mistletoe seeds are dispersed by berry-eating birds which allow the plant to grow on branches high above the shade, freeloading on other trees’ sunlight. In addition, the mistletoe is toxic to humans.
Why, then do we kiss each other under bunches of the devious, toxic plant every Christmas? The common explanation goes back in Greek mythology to the Norse god, Baldur – second son of Odin - god of truth and light. He was so beloved by the other gods that they sought to protect him from all the dangers of the world. His mother, the goddess Frigg, took an oath from fire and water, iron and all metals, stones and earth, from trees, sicknesses and poisons, and from all four-footed beasts, birds and creeping things, that they would not hurt Baldur. And thus the beautiful god was deemed invincible. What does all this have to do with mistletoe? Bear with me…
At a large gathering soon after, stones, arrows, and flame were all flung at Baldur to test his might. Nothing worked and he walked away unscathed. Jealous of Baldur’s new powers, the mischievous Loki set out to find the one thing on Earth that might be able to hurt Baldur. He discovered that the goddess Frigg forgot to ask mistletoe – tiny and forgotten – not to harm her beloved son. In the end a dart fashioned from the little plant was used to murder Baldur in front of all the other gods who loved him so dearly.
Baldur’s mother, Frigg, was devastated and her tears became the berries of the plant, and it was decreed that “mistletoe would never again be used as a weapon, and that she would place a kiss on anyone who passed under it.” And thus, we hang mistletoe underneath our doorway come the holidays, so that we never overlook it again.
Legend states that a couple who kisses underneath mistletoe will have good luck, but a couple neglecting to perform the ritual will have bad luck. It is believed that a couple kissing under the mistletoe ensure themselves of marriage and a long, happy life, while an unmarried woman not kissed under the mistletoe would remain single for another year.
Many women placed a sprig of mistletoe under their pillow which allowed them to dream of their Prince Charming. Legend further states that if a girl refused a kiss while standing under mistletoe, it was said that she would not receive any marriage proposals during the following year. Worse, it seems that many people would avoid her since they believed she would probably end up an old maid.
Interestingly, there is a proper etiquette for kissing under the mistletoe. First, the man can only kiss a woman or girl on the cheek, and second, when he does so, he removes one berry from the sprig. After all berries are gone, the kissing must end, too.
While mistletoe is widely viewed as a symbol of love and fertility, it is also representative of peace. Ancient tales tell of enemies who encounter each other underneath trees bearing mistletoe. The enemies lay down their arms, embrace, and agree to a truce until the next day. The act of goodwill is yet another possibility for why we kiss under mistletoe.
With all the kissing going on this season, may I leave you with some practical advice - never let a fool kiss you, and never let a kiss fool you.
“IT’S MISTLETOE SEASON – PUCKER UP”
BY: NEAL MURPHY
107 HEMLOCK STREET
PO BOX 511
SAN AUGUSTINE, TX 75972