22 December 2009
I packaged up seven little boxes and sent them to friends today who responded to my Facebook offer to send mistletoe. It’s freshly picked, ready to enhance your holiday gatherings!
In the process of this incredibly tradition-oriented exercise, I got inspired to write a year-end letter for our friends. I used to do that regularly, and recently have allowed other things to steal my focus from it. Today, it just all fell together and I got it done. And, I had a great time doing it. Now, we’ll see how many I get mailed out . . .
On the subject of the mistletoe, for those who might be interested, this is the result of my research, and the information that I sent out along with the happy little sprigs.
From the earliest times mistletoe has been one of the most magical, mysterious, and sacred plants of European folklore. Referred to as “the golden bough,” it was considered to bestow life and fertility; a protection against poison; and an aphrodisiac. The mistletoe of the sacred oak was especially sacred to the ancient Celtic Druids. On the sixth night of the moon, white-robed Druid priests would cut the oak mistletoe with a golden sickle and catch it in a white cloth, not allowing it to touch the ground. Two white bulls would be sacrificed amid prayers that the recipients of the mistletoe would prosper. Later, the ritual of cutting the mistletoe from the oak came to symbolize the emasculation of the old King by his successor. Mistletoe was long regarded as both a sexual symbol and the “soul” of the oak. It was gathered at both mid-summer and winter solstices, and the custom of using mistletoe to decorate houses at Christmas is a survival of the Druid and other pre-Christian traditions. The Greeks also thought that it had mystical powers and down through the centuries it became associated with many folklore customs. In the Middle Ages and later, branches of mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits. In Europe they were placed over house and stable doors to prevent the entrance of witches. It was also believed that the oak mistletoe could extinguish fire. This was associated with an earlier belief that the mistletoe itself could come to the tree during a flash of lightning. The traditions which began with the European mistletoe were transferred to the similar American plant with the process of immigration and settlement.
The Legend of the Goddess of Love
Both the mystical power of mistletoe and the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe owe themselves to the legend of Goddess Frigga and her son Balder. Frigga was the Goddess of Love and her son, Balder, was the God of the Summer Sun, and Mistletoe was the sacred plant of Frigga. Balder had a dream of death which greatly alarmed his mother, for should he die, all life on earth would end. In an attempt to keep this from happening, Frigga went at once to air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant seeking a promise that no harm would come to her son. Balder now could not be hurt by anything on earth or under the earth. But Balder had one enemy, Loki, god of evil and he knew of one plant that Frigga had overlooked in her quest to keep her son safe. It grew neither on the earth nor under the earth, but on apple and oak trees. It was lowly mistletoe. So Loki made an arrow tip of the mistletoe, gave to the blind god of winter, Hoder, who shot it , striking Balder dead. The sky paled and all things in earth and heaven wept for the sun god. For three days each element tried to bring Balder back to life. He was finally restored by Frigga, the goddess and his mother. It is said the tears she shed for her son turned into the pearly white berries on the mistletoe plant and in her joy Frigga kissed everyone who passed beneath the tree on which it grew. The story ends with a decree that who should ever stand under the humble mistletoe, no harm should befall them, only a kiss, a token of love.
Kissing under the Mistletoe
Kissing under the mistletoe is first found associated with the Greek festival of Saturnalia and later with primitive marriage rites. It was believed that mistletoe (and the dung containing it) had the power to bestow fertility, or “life-giving” power. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a plant of peace under which enemies could declare a truce or warring spouses could kiss and make-up. If enemies met by chance beneath it in a forest, they laid down their arms and their arguments and maintained a truce until the next day. Later, the eighteenth century English adopted the “kissing ball” at Christmas time, and the repressed Victorians made it an art form. A young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, could not refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill. If the girl remained unkissed, she could not expect not to marry the following year. In some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe was burned on the twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry. And yet, in other traditions, a couple in love who kisses under the mistletoe, is proclaiming an intention to marry and ensuring the blessings of happiness and long life!
In France, the kissing customs linked to mistletoe were reserved for New Year’s Day: “Au gui l’An neuf” (Mistletoe for the New Year).
Even if the pagan significance is forgotten by most, the custom of exchanging a kiss under the mistletoe can still be found in many places. Today, whether it is interpreted as a promise to marry, as a passing romance, or simply as a token of goodwill and happiness, kisses can and should be exchanged under the mistletoe all throughout the holiday season. Whether we believe in its traditions or not, it always makes for fun and frolic at midwinter holiday celebrations.
So, there you have it. All you ever wanted to know about mistletoe . . . and more!