Mistletoe, also known as “the golden bough”, is well known throughout the English- speaking world for its connection to Christmas, in particular to the romantic custom of kissing underneath it.
What is mistletoe?
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant which grows all around the world although in Britain we have just one variety: Viscum album, an evergreen plant with white berries. It grows mainly in the South and West Midlands and favours hardwood trees, especially apple trees. Mistletoe taps its roots into the bark of the tree for nutrients and water, although it does have green leaves and so can photosynthesize by itself.
The name is thought to have come from two Anglo Saxon words: "mistle" meaning dung and "tan" meaning twig. It refers to the fact that it is spread by birds eating the sticky white berries and leaving their droppings in the trees. Mistle thrushes are named for their love of the berries. The sticky consistency of the fruit helps it to stay in place and the plant usually starts to grow within six weeks, although it takes about five years to flower.
Mistletoe traditions go way back into ancient history and there are many mysterious myths surrounding the plant. Once known as "allheal" it was used in folk medicine to treat a variety of ailments, and currently mistletoe is being investigated for its anti-cancer properties and its benefits as a booster of immune systems.
As it produces its fruits around the time of the winter solstice, it has become associated with Christmas celebrations. The Greeks thought that it had mystical powers, and through the centuries it has become associated with many folklore customs. The Druids greatly revered it, believing it could perform miracles and that it held the soul of the host tree. On the sixth night of the moon they would cut it from sacred oak trees with a golden sickle ensuring that it did not touch the ground. Two white bulls would be sacrificed and the recipients of the plant were said to prosper. In the middle ages it was hung in homes as protection from lightning and fires, born from an earlier belief, paradoxically, that it came to be in trees from a flash of lightning and therefore had protective powers. Pagans used it in rites as a religious symbol and, after undergoing a revival in the late 18th century with the festive “kissing ball”, it continues to be a part of our modern Christmas. The first recorded case of someone actually kissing under the mistletoe occurred in 16th century England and, although generally thought to be an English custom, it appears to originate from Scandinavia in the form of a Norse myth concerning the god Baldur.
When Baldur, god of the summer sun was born, his mother the Goddess Frigga made the air, earth, fire, water and every plant and animal promise not to harm her son. She forgot about the mistletoe plant and one day the enemy of Baldur, the god Loki, tricked one of the other gods into killing Baldur with an arrow made from mistletoe. When Baldur died the world was plunged into winter and Frigga`s tears turned into the Mistletoe berries. Eventually she managed to bring her son back to life and in her joy kissed everyone who passed underneath the mistletoe. Frigga declared it a sacred plant and announced that it should bring love, not death to all. From here on any two people that should happen to meet under a mistletoe plant would celebrate the resurrection of Baldur by kissing.
And so was born the tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe, a plant long used as an aphrodisiac and thought to enhance fertility. After each kiss a berry should be plucked from the hanging bunch, until all are gone and kissing under the plant stops until the following year.