By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 8 December 2015)
Mistletoe was considered a sacred plant by many ancient cultures. The Celts and Teutonic peoples believed that mistletoe had magical properties, including the ability to bring luck, drive away evil spirits, heal wounds, and increase fertility.
Mistletoe’s associations with magic and protection likely stem from a Norse legend featuring Baldr (alternatively spelled Balder or Baldur), god of light, purity, innocence, beauty, joy, and reconciliation. Baldr (or his mother, the goddess Frigg, depending on which version of the tale you read) had dreamed of his impending death, so Frigg made every creature, force, and object in the world swear an oath not to harm him. Everything from diseases to snakes to metals to poisons to fire promised not to hurt her beloved son, but Frigg neglected to extract this promise from the mistletoe, considering it too small to be a threat. Loki, the trickster, was jealous of Baldr, and when he learned of Frigg’s oversight, he tricked Hod, Baldr’s blind twin brother, into shooting Baldr with a dart crafted from mistletoe. At this point, there are two different versions of the story’s ending. In one, Hel, goddess of death and the underworld, says Baldr may be revived only if all things in the world weep for him, but because Loki does not weep, Baldr cannot be revived. However, Baldr will be reborn after a great battle (ragnarok) when a new world emerges from the ashes of the old. In another version, Baldr’s grief-stricken mother revives him with her tears, which become the mistletoe’s white berries, and she proclaims mistletoe to be a symbol of love.
Mistletoe featured prominently in pagan winter solstice celebrations. Druids cut sprigs of it and gave it to members of the community, who would hang it over their doors to protect against evil spirits and thunder and lightning, increase fertility, heal wounds, and bring good luck. Tea made from mistletoe was used as a remedy for epileptic seizures and other neurological problems (consuming this plant does actually affect the nervous system; however, using it as an alternative medicine is not recommended because it is quite toxic).
Norse and Druid mythology held that when a couple stood under the mistletoe and kissed, they were promising to go much further. Unsurprisingly, the early Christians banned this plant from their religious celebrations.
Christians eventually adopted the custom of kissing under the mistletoe, though it was considered quite scandalous. The uptight Victorians embraced the tradition, perhaps because they had so few opportunities to do anything fun that the custom was appealing to them.
For more on the history of Christmas traditions and symbols, as well as gift and food ideas for the holiday season, see the main Christmas page.