Thursday, December 15, 2011

The story behind favorite Christmas traditions: Mistletoe

Ever wondered why we hang up a sprig of mistletoe around Christmas, for the sole purpose of stealing kisses?


For ancient Celts, the mistletoe was a symbol of fertility and rebirth, as it is an evergreen parasite that clings to its host even after the host tree has died.

But the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe first appears in the Norse myth of Baldur the Beautiful.

Baldur was the most beautiful of all the gods in Aesir, and was the son of Odin, the king of the gods, and Frigga, godess of love. One night his mother dreamed that Hel, the goddess of the underworld, embraced Baldur and led him into her domain. So his mother went to everthing on earth, from the oak tree to the beetle, and exacted their pledge that they would never hurt Baldur. But she overlooked the mistletoe, as it was so small, and much too young to swear this oath. Loki, the god of chaos, heard of this oversight, and began to plot.

"Each arrow overshot his head..."Source

All the gods began to throw spears and axes at Baldur, and he laughed as the weapons went astray or bounced harmlessly off his skin, and all the gods laughed too. Baldur's blind brother Hodor was standing nearby, wishing he could join in with the merriment. Loki placed a bow in his hand, and "Shoot, I'll guide the bow."
He shot true, and the arrow pierced Baldur's heart. The god fell, dead, for the arrow was made of mistletoe. But Baldur the god of the sun, and if he was dead, all life on earth would cease. Frigga began to wail, and cried so much over her son that her tears wetted the red berries of the mistletoe and turned them white. This raised Baldur to life, and Frigga was  so overjoyed that she decreed that when any two people walked under a sprig of mistletoe together they should kiss in memory of Baldur's resurrection.

Later, Artemis, Greek goddess of the moon and of young maidens, was said to wear a crown of mistletoe during the Roman Saturnalia, and indeed, in temples dedicated to Artemis, the priestesses would give her a crown of the parasitic plant during this holiday. Incidentally, the Saturnalia took place from December seventeenth to December twenty-third.

Much later, the Victorians resurrected this custom, as a part of Christmas celebrations. Author Washington Irving describes this tradition.

    "The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases."

Most Victorian households conveniently forgot the latter part of this tradition!


So there you have it: why we kiss under a parasitic plant at Yuletide!

1 comment:

  1. I love this post. I think everyone should know the prechristian meanings behind all the little traditions that people don't know. I already knew this story, but it was so pleasant to be reminded of it.