We’ve mentioned previously that mistletoe was prominent in the traditions of the Druids and the lore of northern Europe. The Druids used the mistletoe of their sacred oak as part of their ritual five days after the new moon following the Winter Solstice.
In the Middle Ages, it was hung from ceilings or placed above stable and house doors with the belief that it would drive off evil spirits and ensure fertility.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on trees. Phoradendron flavescens or Viscum album sends its roots into the tree’s bark and derives its nutrients from the tree itself, though it does engage in photosynthesis. So it’s a hemi-parasite.
Etymology of Mistletoe
The word can be traced back to 2nd century Anglo-Saxon “mistel” for the word dung and “tan” for a twig, mistletan being the Old English version of the word.
This suggests the belief that mistletoe grew from birds, though we know now that it is spread by the bird’s droppings in trees or the seed’s sticky viscin nature that adheres to tree bark.
Mistletoe with Greco-Romans
Some would trace the tradition of kissing under mistletoe back to the Roman Saturnalia; indeed, the Greek goddess Artemis (Roman: Diana), patron of the city of Ephesus (New Testament, Acts 19:24-41), wore a crown of mistletoe as an emblem of fertility and immortality. However, the most fully developed myth regarding mistletoe comes from the Norse mythology of the Vikings.
The story goes as follows. Baldur, the Norse god of light and the summer sun, saw his own death in a dream. Frigga, his mother and the goddess of beauty and love — and from whom we get the word Friday — compelled the elements, plants, and animals not to kill Baldur. But she neglected to extract this same promise from the young and insignificant mistletoe.
The mischief god Loki — brother of Thor in the Marvel comics and movies, but in Norse mythology, he was the blood-brother of Odin — had an idea.
Realizing that mistletoe grows on trees and has no roots in the ground, Loki fashioned a poisoned dart from mistletoe and, with the aid of Baldur’s blind brother, Hoder shot the mistletoe missile to kill Baldur. His death brought winter and his mother’s lamentation. So say the medieval Norse myths we learn from the 13th-century Icelandic Eddas.
Later traditions say that Frigga’s tears over her son changed the red mistletoe berries white, and henceforth and forever, mistletoe would bring love rather than death into the world. Any two people passing under mistletoe would exchange a kiss in memory of Baldur.
Christian Mistletoe Customs
By the 18th century, kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas time was a widespread custom, later mentioned in 1820 by Washington Irving in his Sleepy Hollow story,
“the mistletoe, with its white berries, hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.”
Christian customs called it Herbe de la Croix or Lignum Sanctae Crucis for “Wood of the Sacred Cross” because of the belief that it was used to supply the wood for Christ’s cross. For its role, mistletoe was condemned to be a parasitic vine. Further penance for the plant was that it bless everyone who walked beneath it.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian