Mickey Rathbun: How did kissing beneath mistletoe become a Christmas tradition?

Published: 12-22-2016 11:11 PM

Mistletoe is one of those Christmas traditions that many of us know little about, beyond the fact that people are supposed to kiss under it when it’s hung in a doorway during the holiday season.

I got curious about it a few years ago when a friend told me that people in West Virginia (and presumably elsewhere) shoot it out of trees with shot guns and then give it away or sell it. I guess it’s an easier target than birds on the wing.

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that attaches itself to a host tree or shrub, often oaks, apple trees and willows. It makes an arresting sight in winter, a bright green ball hanging amidst bare branches. Technically, it is a “hemiparasitic,” because in its earliest stages of growth it performs its own photosynthesis. Once its root penetrates its host’s conductive tissue, it gets nutrients and water from the host.

Mistletoe is often considered a pest because it can stunt or even kill its host branch. But ecologists have discovered that mistletoe is also beneficial, providing habitat for birds, pollen for bees, and nectar for butterflies, who also lay their eggs on mistletoe.

The seeds of mistletoe are spread by animals that eat the berries, most often birds. When a bird poops in a tree, an undigested seed can lodge on a branch and slowly begin to grow and attach itself to the host, a process that takes a year or more. This seems like a low-percentage way to propagate, but it’s stood the test of time for many centuries, as evidenced by the plant’s long and fascinating cultural history.

According to some sources, the name derives from two Anglo-Saxon words: mistle, meaning dung, and tan, meaning twig. I’ve found little or no explanation for this origin. What does poop on a stick have to do with a bizarre parasitic plant? Did the people who coined the name understand that bird poop on twigs gave rise to balls of mistletoe?

Whatever the etymology of its name, many ancient cultures, including Greek, Druid and Norse, believed that mistletoe had mystical properties. The plant was variously associated with fertility, good fortune, protection against poison and banishment of evil spirits and witches.

The Druids are said to have thought that oak mistletoe could extinguish fire, a notion associated with the belief that mistletoe was created during flashes of lightning. This is certainly a more colorful origin story than the bird-poop-on-stick version.

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According to the website www.theholidayspot.com, the kissing aspect of mistletoe has origins in ancient Norse mythology. It is said that mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, the Norse goddess of beauty, love and marriage. This came about because one night, Frigga’s son Balder, god of the summer sun, dreamed of death. This frightened Frigga, who believed that should he die, all life on the planet would cease. To keep Balder safe, she went to all the elements, plants and animals asking them to promise not to harm him.

But Loki, the god of evil, realized that Frigga had not secured a promise from the mistletoe. He made an arrow tipped with mistletoe and gave it to Hoder, the blind god of winter, who shot Balder with the arrow. Frigga cried with grief and asked all the elements to try to bring him back to life.

Balder was eventually restored. The tears Frigga shed for him were said to have become the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant; in her joy she kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. Thus arose the tradition that whoever stood under the mistletoe should receive a kiss, a token of love. My husband has another idea. He thinks the tradition was invented by drunken lechers as an excuse to kiss pretty girls.

The Druids had an especially intricate ritual involving mistletoe. On the sixth night of the moon, Druid priests clad in white robes would cut mistletoe from a sacred oak with a golden sickle. Two white bulls would be sacrificed and prayers were made that recipients of the mistletoe would prosper. (I can’t help wondering how the priests managed to cut the mistletoe without the help of firearms, but it never pays to examine folklore too carefully.) The Druids cut mistletoe at both the midsummer and winter solstices, and this eventually evolved into the present tradition of decorating houses at Christmas.

These intriguing stories, however fanciful, help us get our minds out of the shopping mall and connect with the ancient spirits of the season. For that we should be grateful.

Start the New Year on the right foot

Ring in the New Year in the Valley with Kestrel Trust’s annual New Year's Day hikes, one on each side of the river.

On the east side, wildlife biologist Dave King will lead a walk exploring the Reed Conservation Area in Belchertown.

On the west side, enjoy a festive trek at Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area in Northampton with naturalist John Body and Kestrel Board member Dave Herships. Look for signs of wildlife around the lake and woods. 

These walks are a wonderful way to celebrate the community and our natural treasures. They will take place from noon till 2 p.m. There’s no fee, but registration is required.

For more information and to register, go to http://kestreltrust.org/sign-up-for-a-hike.php

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at foxglover8@gmail.com.