What is the origin of the Christmas tradition of hanging mistletoe and kissing under the mistletoe?
According to researcher Susan Drury, the custom of hanging mistletoe at Christmas is rarely mentioned until the 18th Century. Traditionally the mistletoe must not touch the ground from the time it is cut until it is taken down at Candlemas (on or near February 2nd). Sometimes it was left hanging as mystical protection against lightning and fire until it was replaced on Christmas eve.
Another belief was that Mistletoe has the power to bestow fertility. Mistletoe was also considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses kiss and make-up. During the eighteenth-century, the English credited the Mistletoe a certain magical appeal called a kissing ball. At Christmas time a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with ribbons, and ornaments, could not be refused a kiss. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill. Although in some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe is burned on the 12th night so all the boys and girls who have kissed under it would never marry. Other cultures believed that mistletoe was an aphrodisiac
There's at least 3 sources: Mistletoe was a symbol of fertility to the Celts in England (pre-Roman), because the leaves remained green in the winter, and so was seen to have life-giving powers. In Medieval times it was hung over a doorway to ward off evil spirits, and in the late Renaissance in England it was fashioned as a "kissing bough" and placed in the main room of a house during Christmas.
The ancient Greeks saw mistletoe as a symbol of peace, and it was common practice at a wedding for couples to kiss under the plant.
Finally, in Viking lore, Balder, god of light, had a dream about dying. His mother, Frigga, goddess of love and fertility, asked all the elements of the earth to spare him. They agreed because everybody loved Balder, and in celebration all the gods jovially tried and failed to kill him with things made from the earth (those Vikings!)
Loki, god of mischief, found out that mistletoe was exempted from the list because it was so insignificant (ie it grows on a tree, not in the earth). So he played a "prank" and shot Balder with an arrow made of poison from a mistletoe berry, and he died.
Frigga struggled and finally saved her son (in a happier version of the legend), and in joy she give mistletoe a more noble place in nature and announced that she would bestow a kiss for good luck and protection for anybody who passed under it.
The kissing under the mistletoe seems to be an English only custom, or found in countries where they have settled. In the 16c and 17c, foreign visitors to England were surprise at the amount of kissing that took place in England, the tradition of the mistletoe being the last vestige of this public display.
The Encyclopaedia of Superstitions. E. and M.A. Radford, edited by Christina Hole. Hutchinson. first published 1948, this edition 1980 reprint. pp233/234
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