Monday, December 13, 2010

Why do people kiss under the mistletoe?

By Beat Schwendimann

Most types of mistletoe are classified as hemiparasitical (i.e., partial parasites), as they are capable of photosynthesis. Mistletoe lives on trees. Being evergreen, mistletoe stays green in the winter, even after the host tree lost all its leaves. This made mistletoes a symbol of life. Celtic druids considered mistletoe a sacred plant. The word "mistletoe" originated from the misconception that mistletoes would grow on branches from bird excrements. 'Mistel' is the Anglo-Saxon word for 'dung,' and 'tan' is the word for 'twig'. So, mistletoe means 'dung-on-a-twig'."

The romantic tradition of kissing under a mistletoe originates from Norse mythology. In a Norse myth, Mistletoe was said to be the sacred plant of Frigga (also called Freya; "Friday" (Freya's Day) is named after her), the goddess of family and love. Frigga has the power of prophecy and dreamed of her son Balder's death. When Balder (or Baldur) was born, Frigga made each and every plant, animal and inanimate object promise not to harm Baldur. But Frigga overlooked the mistletoe plant. Balder’s enemy, the trickster god Loki, fashioned an arrow from mistletoe and gave it to Balder's brother Hoder, the blind god of winter, who tragically killed the otherwise invulnerable Balder with it. The demise of Baldur, a vegetation deity in the Norse myths, brought winter into the world. He was brought back to life by his mother when she shed tears that turned into Mistletoe berries, so Frigga kissed everyone who passed under the tree on which it grew. Frigga declared the mistletoe sacred, ordering that from now on it should bring love rather than death into the world. From that time on, anyone who stood under the mistletoe would receive a kiss and no harm could come to him. Happily complying with Frigga's wishes, any two people passing under the plant from now on would celebrate Baldur's resurrection by kissing under the mistletoe.
Baldur's Death (Woodcarving at Oslo City Hall)
Originally, the custom was that young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the mistletoe. When the berries were all plucked the privilege ceased. Today, we have conveniently forgotten the part about plucking the berries (which, incidentally, are poisonous).

More info in this extensive essay about the biology and traditions of the mistletoe: Kissing Under the Mistletoe. A description of different mistletoe traditions can be found here.

No comments:

Post a Comment