Because Mistletoe is not native to North America, it was not a part of American Christmas traditions until the latter half of the 19th century, but since then has become a staple of Christmas. The plant has a fascinating history, with many ancient cultures considering it sacred and magical.
Mistletoe and the Druids
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant, in that it penetrates the roots of an existing tree and obtains its nutrients that way. Mistletoe, especially that attached to an oak tree, was regarded as sacred by the ancient Druids. In fact, they believed the plant was a cure to all poisons and diseases.
The Druids would only gather mistletoe during unique ceremonies that were held on the sixth day or night of the sixth moon after the winter solstice – when their year began. During this ceremony, the Druids would gather around an oak tree, led by their priests, who would dress in white robes. A priest would climb the oak and cut the mistletoe with a sickle and drop it into the robe of another priest. Great care was taken to keep the mistletoe from hitting the ground, as it was thought that it would lose its magical properties if it did.
After the mistletoe was collected, two white bulls would be sacrificed under the oak tree (unfortunately, sometimes humans adorned with oak leaves would be sacrificed as well). The mistletoe was fashioned into a drink that was distributed to people in need of its powers. It was thought to encourage fertility, healing, and eternal life for the people who consumed it. It also protected them from witches and sorcery. The mistletoe was also divided amongst the people so that it could be hung over the doorways of their homes. Their houses were decked with boughs of mistletoe in order to signal to the spirits of the forest that they were welcome to take shelter inside their homes during during the brutal winter.
Given the pagan significance of mistletoe, it understandably drew opposition to being introduced into the Christian church. It did enter people’s private homes, however, and has become a modern-day staple of Christmas, even in America
Mistletoe and the Norse
In Scandinavian mythology, mistletoe played a more sinister role for Baldr, the Norse god of light and purity. Baldr’s mother, Frigg, gave him the gift of immunity to injury from the four elements of fire, air, earth, and water. However, Loki (the evil trickster spirit of the Norse) made an arrow out of Mistletoe (which, according to legend, came from none of the elements), and gave it to the blind deity Höðr, who shot the weapon at Baldr and mortally wounded him.
The gods stepped in and decided to bring Baldr back to life, and out of respect to his mother, the Mistletoe was dedicated to her. She was given control of the plant as long as it never touched the earth (which remained the domain of Loki).
Some believe that this is the origin of the custom of hanging mistletoe from the ceiling or doorway, and of collecting a kiss from the opposite sex whenever they walk under it. The kiss is a token of peace and love and an assurance that the mistletoe is no longer a plant of malice and mischief.
The most common mistletoe tradition is that when a member of the opposite sex passes under the mistletoe, they are obliged to give you a kiss. One common superstition was that a woman who was not kissed under the mistletoe would remain single the coming year.
In parts of Europe it was once believed that the cross upon which Jesus was crucified was made of mistletoe, which until that point had been a grand type of tree. After Jesus died upon the cross, however, the mistletoe was condemed to the life of a parasitic plant as punishment.
If mistletoe comes into contact with the ground, it is an ominous sign and some great disaster is sure to follow.
Mistletoe was considered to be a cure for consumption, epilepsy and convulsions. Others believed a regimen of mistletoe served over 40 days could cure the effects of strokes and palsy.
In Sweden, mistletoe harvested from oak trees was placed in homes to ward off fires and injuries of those inside.
Many ancient cultures believed that mistletoe had the power to open all locks.
Mistletoe worn around the neck was considered to be a talisman that could ward off witches and evil spells (so long as the bough it came from had never touched the earth).
An ancient custom originating in Britain had farmers feeding a bough of mistletoe to the first cow to give birth after the new year. It was thought that doing so would ward off any bad luck affecting the dairy.
Even as late as the 16th century, the French saw the mistletoe as a protective and luck-bringing plant. Many of the French referred to a bough of mistletoe as a “Specter’s Wand,” as they believed that the holder could not only see ghosts, but compel them to speak.
Mistletoe was considered to be the embodiment of lightning among Scandanavian countries.
Centuries ago, it was thought that mistletoe only grew after their seeds had been passed through the stomach of a bird and deposited on a tree, especially the stomach of the Missel-Thrush.
In Java, a species of mistletoe that grows on the Bodhi Tree is thought to be very pleasing to the departed souls who revisit earth.
A superstition in France that persisted into the 1900’s regarded burnt mistletoe as a good luck charm, and people would carry small bags of it when conducting business and handling money. Farmers would also bury a bag of burned mistletoe in their fields in the belief it would bring a good harvest.
It was common in England for a bough of mistletoe to be hung over the doors of taverns, so that the patrons of the bar would not be menaced by evil spirits on the way home. It has been said that this gave rise to the Shakespeare line, “A good wine needs no bush!”.
Virgil mentions the magical properties of mistletoe in the Aenid.
The magical properties of mistletoe are mentioned by Virgil in the Aeneid, as well as by Ovid, the popular Roman poet who died around 17 A.D.
When the Druids no longer existed in Britain, the plant was still harvested by the English people. Superstitions about the gathering of mistletoe without proper reverance developed… Richard Folkard, in his book on plant lore, relays the story of a man who broke his leg shortly after harvesting mistletoe to sell to local apothecaries.
Sayings About Mistletoe:
The mistletoe hung on the castle wall,
And the holly branch shone in the old oak hall;
And the baron’s retainers were blithe and gay,
Keeping their Christmas holiday.
* * *
Down with the Rosemary, and so
Down with the Baies and Mistletoe;
Down with the Holly, Ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress the Christmas hall;
That so the superstitious find
Not one least branch left thar behind
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.
Down with the Rosemary and Bays,
Down with the Mistletoe;
Instead of Holly now upraise
The greener Box for show.
A Christmas poem:
Evergreens and Mistletoe
Along the upper Mimbres grow
Evergreens and mistletoe
Symbols of the Yuletide dear;
Promise of abundant cheer.
Let us gather them today,
Spoils to make our Christmas gay,
Evergreens and mistletoe
Where the winter colors glow.
Returning with the setting sun,
Burdened with the trophies won,
We’ll deck our homes where love holds sway
Forever and a day.