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Why do people kiss under the mistletoe? A look back at the history of this holiday tradition

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Mistletoe close up
© Arybickii | Dreamstime.com

The story of mistletoe and Christmas & New Year’s kisses, as told in 1954

A MESSENGER OF THE GODS, the “missel thrush” was employed by ancient tribes, the Druids, the Celts and Germans long before the birth of Christ. The gods, whose messenger the mistletoe represented, were the same the Greek and Romans worshipped.

According to legend, the mistletoe originally was a stately tree, but was degraded after part of its wood had been used for the cross of Christ. The tree was condemned to a humble parasite, despised until the end of time.

The strange fact is that the mistletoe never grew into a horticultural plant and was never raised for commercial purposes, though a romantic symbol of Yuletide.

Botanically, the mistletoe belongs to a large family of parasites, plants that are nourished by another plant to which they attach themselves “to frequent the table of a rich man and gain his favor by flattery.”

The ornamental value, the daintiness of the small rounded leaves, light yellowish-green, the small soft white berries in the fork of the stem, dress up the host tree, no doubt.

And the strength remains to the tree, as the mistletoe is not that kind of a parasite that depletes its heat, it merely takes water and liquid minerals away from it, not the nourishment. It never kills a tree, it may weaken its health or lessen its fruiting capacity, at least the variety that decorates our chandeliers and doorways does.

Mistletoe growing in a tree

THIS KIND, the Viscum album, a genus of the Phoradendron is less harmful than the dwarf mistletoe of the genua Arceuthobium. Both are members of the Loranthaceae.

The Yuletide mistletoe is found mostly on deciduous hardwood trees and junipers, and is well known in the South, where it is taken from the host trees as a complete plant.

Make sure you take a berry

Sprigs with berries serve the playful custom that a person standing beneath the mistletoe must forfeit a kiss.

This power of the mistletoe ends, however, with the last berry on the sprig, as each couple has to pick one of the glossy white fruit to keep it as charm. After all berries are picked, no more kisses are available. Therefore, only the sprigs with the fruit still on are the real thing.

ALSO SEE: Is mistletoe really poisonous?

Mistletoe Christmas postcard

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This custom of kissing under the mistletoe twig is claimed by the Scandinavians. Baldur, the Scandinavian Apollo, received a charm from his mother, Frigga, the counterpart of Venus, so that he never would get injured from fire, water, air and earth.

But, even among the gods, there was enmity. Baldur was struck by an arrow that had been made up from a mistletoe — an arrow that had not come in contact with either one of the four elements. The tears of Frigga were the white berries of the mistletoe.

Though the concerted effort of the gods, Baldur was restored to life, and Frigga decreed the mistletoe a sacred plant. Never again should the mistletoe do harm to anyone. For ever it should bestow a kiss upon those passing under it.

Grateful for the return of her son, the goddess of love and beauty created the custom which perhaps will live with the mistletoe until the end of time.

Out of the ancient legends, modern custom chose the worldly part, and the kiss under the suspended sprig of the fruiting mistletoe continues from generation to generation.

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Hanging the mistletoe at Christmas

The possible Druid origins of traditional mistletoe at Christmas

BUT NATURE BELIEVERS have not yet recovered another custom centered around the mistletoe which shows the Yuletide ceremony of the Druids in ancient times.

Living in the forest in caves, the Druids were the teachers and priests performing of rites. They were the medicine men and the astrologers. Their congregation was sworn to secrecy.

From their rites, however, one description was handed down, and this one reveals the importance and significance of the mistletoe on it, where it was regarded as the sacred plant.

“The chief Nature festival of these worshippers was held five days after the new moon as a ceremonial rite of the Winter solstice. Men, women and children went to the forest. They moved toward the oak tree that had the most mistletoe on it… First came the bards, then a herald. As they came in sight of the tree, they hailed it with loud shouts of delight and reverence. In the midst of this group one figure towers — the Arch-Druid.

“A golden chain was about his neck: gold hands were around his arms. He was clad in flowing white robes.

“He ascended the tree to the lowest bough on which the sacred mistletoe was growing. With a golden sickle, he chopped the branch and allowed it to fall in a fold of his ample robes. This plant was so sacred that it must never touch the earth.

“The priest then broke the branch in many pieces, and gave a twig to each of his followers with a prayer that each one who received a branch should find divine favor and a blessing from Nature.”

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What a theatrical for the out-of-doors! The dethroned mistletoe, by the way, is not accepted as church decoration today.

After all the ancient and modern interest shown the mistletoe, should propagation really he left to the hirds alone? Wouldn’t it be advisable to raise some scientifically? Future farmers may have the answer.

Dec 17, 1951 Mistletoe

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