CHARLOTTE, N.C., December 6, 2017: Considering the current climate of fear and loathing regarding sexual harassment, it might seem highly inappropriate to write a story about the ancient tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.
Regardless here is the story of that tradition written at great risk and with some trepidation.
Mistletoe and the Druids
Believe it or not, hanging a sprig of mistletoe in the house dates as far back as the time of the ancient Druids. In addition to putting in a hard day’s work building mystical stone circles on Britain’s Salisbury Plain, the Druids spent much of their time opining on the mystical realm.
One of their beliefs was that mistletoe possessed mystical powers that would bring good luck to the household and ward off evil spirits.
Later, in Norse mythology, the semi-parasitic plant was a sign of friendship and love. It doesn’t take much imagination to see where this is going. One thing led to another, eventually evolving into the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe.
Seeking Pardons under the Mistletoe
In the Middle Ages in the ancient walled English city of York, a Mistletoe Service was held each winter at the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York. On this day evildoers could come to seek pardons for their transgressions.
The tradition continues in modified form at York Minster even today, as noted by the Yorkshire Post:
“On Christmas Eve, just before the annual Carol Service at York Minster, the Dean will quietly perform a ritual more related to pagan times than Christianity. Using a simple piece of string, the Very Rev Keith Jones will tie a ball of mistletoe to one of the ‘riddel’ [side] posts on the high altar of the Minster choir. His intention will not be to lure some unsuspecting young lady to within kissing distance of its wishbone-shaped twigs of slender leaves and waxy white berries, but to keep up a unique tradition.
“‘It has an easy Christian meaning for me,’ says the Very Rev Keith Jones. ‘The way it grows on another tree, as it were, makes it represent living together in harmony, and it’s a well-known symbol of affection. So to hang it in your church as part of the Christmas decorations, I believe, makes sense.
“‘All the great Christian symbols have their roots in natural religion. One of the central things about Christian theology is that it says Paganism is not wrong in what it’s trying to do, it just hasn’t got the point. Christianity simply adds the meaning.'”
Poop on a stick?
Outside the church, it was necessary to pluck a berry from a sprig of mistletoe before each kiss. When all the berries were gone, no more lip locking.
We would observe that since the list of great English lovers is second only to that of its chefs, it seems odd that the custom of kissing under the mistletoe would evolve in the United Kingdom. T
Then again, when you learn of the broader interpretation, the idea becomes far less romantic.
The word “mistletoe” comes from two Anglo Saxon words. The first is “mistel,” which means “dung” while the second is “tan” meaning “twig” or “stick.” In other words, the true meaning of the word “mistletoe” is “poop on a stick,” which hardly makes the act of kissing beneath as appealing as it might initially sound.
On the other hand, mistletoe has long been a symbol of fertility, protection against poison and an aphrodisiac. That essentially means it was a kind of medieval viagra.
Typically establishing its parasitical relationship by attaching itself to a tree, mistletoe was said to be the “soul” of the oak. As such, it was employed not only in winter but during the midsummer solstice as well.
Beyond England, one popular European tradition was hanging mistletoe over the house and stable doors to prevent witches from entering. Many also believed that mistletoe could extinguish a fire. That was probably the tradition long before the idea of kissing developed.
The story of Frigga, Balder, Loki, and Mistletoe
One of the best stories associated with the mystical power of kissing under the mistletoe is, in reality, a beautiful seasonal legend. According to the myth, mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga, the goddess of love and mother of Balder, the god of the summer sun.
And no, Frigga did not originate as a Marvel Comics character.
The original Frigga became frantic when she learned of a death dream by Balder. Balder’s dream says that all life on earth as we know it would die. Frigga went to air, fire, water, earth and every plant and animal, begging them to promise her that no harm would come to Balder.
Though Frigga was nearly successful in her quest, she overlooked Balder’s arch-enemy, Loki. That notoriously shady god knew that she had not reached out to one plant that could keep her son safe. The plant grew neither on earth or beneath it. Rather it thrived on apple and oak trees. That plant was the lowly mistletoe.
To destroy life, Loki fashioned an arrow using mistletoe for its tip. He then had the blind god of winter, Hoder, shoot it into the air. The arrow struck Balder and killed him.
The sky darkened, and for three days the earth and heavens wept as each element attempted without success to bring Balder back to life. In her final desperate act of remorse, Frigga cried out for her son. Frigga was so distraught that the legend says the tears she shed morphed into the pearly white berries that hang today on mistletoe plants.
To commemorate and celebrate this, Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which the mistletoe grew. Frigga’s kiss eventually leads to a decree that no harm would ever befall whoever should stand under the tree. Further, those doing so would receive a token of love: a kiss.
Thus what seems like a trivial Christmas tradition actually has its roots in an ancient myth. It is now symbolic of the year-end holiday season during which love arrives to conquer death.
Not a bad ending for “poop on a stick.”
About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.