The best-known tradition is the kissing one; – hanging mistletoe high in a room and kissing loved ones, or complete strangers, beneath it, is hugely popular Christmas custom. There’s more on the kissing custom below, but first it’s worth reviewing some other, even older traditions. Sections down the page are:
- Norse, Greek and Roman traditions
- Druidry – ancient and modern
- Christmas & New Year traditions
- Other traditions – old and new
Norse, Greek & Roman mistletoe traditions
It’s not all about kissing, or even about cutting mistletoe from your sacred oak. There are many other ancient mistletoe traditions. Some of best-known are the Norse, Greek and Roman legends, outlined below.
Baldr the Beautiful
In Norse mythology (specifically the stories relating to the Æsir) there is a famous story about the god Baldr (also spelt Balder and Baldur) who was slain, through treachery, by a weapon made of mistletoe.
There are many versions of this tale, but most agree on the main points that Baldr, son of Frigg (the goddess remembered every Friday) was one of the most popular gods, and was known as Baldr the Beautiful. But he was plagued by dreams foretelling his death and so, in an effort to reassure and protect him, his mother made everything, plant, animal or rock, living on or growing in the earth swear never to harm him. As a result he became invincible, and the other gods began to take advantage of his good nature by using him for target practice. He always survived.
But Loki, a jealous and mischievous god, realised that the mistletoe had been overlooked in the oath-taking, as it didn’t actually grow in the ground. He contrived a weapon from some mistletoe – variously described as an arrow, dart or spear. Rather than do his own dirty work he persuaded Hod, Baldr’s blind brother to strike with this weapon, ensuring that Hod took the immediate blame. Baldr died from this single wound, and all the gods mourned for him.
In some versions of the story he is brought back to life, but most agree about the outcome for mistletoe – Frigg’s tears became its pearlescent berries, still seen today and Frigg decreed that, instead of being punished, mistletoe should become a symbol of peace and friendship evermore.
Aeneas and the Golden Bough
In Greece, Aeneas was guided to the abode of the dead by plucking the ‘Golden Bough’ of mistletoe.
In Greek myth, Aeneas, a survivor from Troy who has many adventures (told in Virgil’s Aeneid) before settling in Italy and founding the community that was to become the Roman Empire. In one of these he searches for his dead father Anchises who his father, who shows him a vision of his future and the founding to Rome.
Where does mistletoe come into this? Well, to visit his father he must visit the abode of the dead, and to get there from Avernus he is advised . In order to make his way to and from Avernus, he was advised by the Sibyl that he must first seek and pluck the ‘golden bough’ from a tree in the forest.
He was guided to the bough by doves sent by Venus (his mother), found the golden bough, successfully visited his father, and returned.
This ‘golden bough’ is assumed by many writers and scholars to be mistletoe. Certainly our European Mistletoe, Viscum album, often appears golden in the winter months.
The ‘Golden Bough‘ became famous as a symbol of myth and legend when Sir James Frazer used it as the title of his monumental work on magic and religion in 1922.
The tradition that the ancient druids used mistletoe is well-known and usually regarded as factual – despite being based on very little information.
We only have the writings of the Romans (mostly Pliny the Elder) to draw on and these were much exaggerated over the intervening centuries. Indeed much of what we think we know about the druids is actually largely based on ‘re-interpretation’ of them during the 18th and 19th centuries.
According to Pliny the druidic priesthood valued, worshipped even, mistletoe where it grew on their sacred trees, particularly their oaks (on which European mistletoe is, actually, very rare). They would climb the tree to harvest it, cutting it with a golden sickle, then let it fall naturally to be caught in a hide or cloak before it touched the ground. If it did reach the ground it would lose its special powers. The special harvest would then be used in ritual or in medicine.
How accurate is this story? No-one knows – but, judging from the far-fetched nature of some of Pliny’s other stories, it is possible that it is a little embellished or even incompletely inaccurate! Nevertheless the story is fixed in popular imagination, not least because of the efforts of William Stukeley, the 18th century antiquarian, who took a keen interest in all things druidic and succeeded in reviving interest in their (supposed) traditions.
For an overview of druids, and their place in British history and mythology, try this book, Blood and Mistletoe: a history of the Druids in Britain, by Ronald Hutton, in which he assesses the ongoing reassessment and re-invention of druidry.
Modern druid groups (and there are many, have a look at the Druid Network) still take an active interest in mistletoe, including a particular interest in mistletoe on oak.
In 2004 a new Druid initiative called the Mistletoe Foundation was established to review and rekindle interest in the mistletoe ritual described by Pliny. The group is open to all, druid or non-druid, and they have events each year in the Tenbury Wells area.
More information about the Mistletoe Foundation and their current events is available from their website and there are accounts of most of their winter ceremonies on Jonathan Briggs’ Mistletoe Diary too – for a selection of druid-flavoured entries click here.
There are a few famous fictional druids that use mistletoe too – including Getafix, the druid of the Asterix cartoons.
Getafix harvests in the way described by Pliny, cutting the mistletoe with his golden sickle and using it to make special potions – which, in the case of the Asterix books, famously give the Gaulish tribe superhuman strength.
There is no evidence that mistletoe can really give you extra strength – but if you’re interested in mistletoe’s potential in medicine visit our mistletoe medicine pages.
Mistletoe’s association with the Christian festival of Christmas is more coincidental than genuine. The plant has had a special place in mid-winter customs for a very long time, and its use pre-dates Christianity.
Indeed, despite its use at Christmas it is still considered to be a pagan plant by the Church and is often banned from Church decorations – so it seems an odd species for close association with the major Christian festival.
The reason lies in the awkward mixture of traditions we draw on at Christmas and New Year, complete with remnants of ancient winter solstice customs. The solstice use of evergreen plants has become a part of Christmas now, but the special traditions of mistletoe make it the most difficult to link to Christmas proper.
The Kissing tradition
This is a remnant of an ancient fertility tradition, helped along by some re-invention in the 18th and 19th centuries when druidic ideas were reborn. It may originally have been rather a local custom and not a genuine national tradition. But it became amazingly popular, particularly in Britain and abroad in English-speaking countries (USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc), and eventually everywhere.
There are many explanations of the kissing tradition – though most relate either to the Norse legend of Baldr (see above) or to the view that mistletoe is an ancient symbol of fertility.
The most obvious fertility aspect is that, as an evergreen growth on a deciduous host, mistletoe, as a parasitic can be seen as symbolic of the continuing ‘life-force’ (and vitality/fertility) of the host tree through the winter (which may be particularly significant if the tree is your sacred oak – see Druidic traditions).
But that’s not all. The fertility imagery is enhanced by European mistletoe’s shape and form – the forking paired branches, paired leaves and berries full of white sticky juice hint of sexual organs in shape, and in content.
The concept of mistletoe as a fertility symbol is reflected in many uses – as a medicine to encourage fertility, as a charm for young ladies to find husbands, and in our kissing custom. That was probably, until the resurgence of interest in druid customs in the 18th /19th centuries, a local custom – but new interest, the rise of mass communication and easier transport meant that by the late 19th century it was universal within Britain.
These pages of the Illustrated London News and Harpers Weekly, dating from 1846, 1863, 1879 and 1897, all show the popularity of the kissing custom, in spite of it being ‘pagan’ in the eyes of the church!
Which mistletoe for kissing?
Different mistletoe species have to be used in many countries, as the original kissing mistletoe is the original European species. So in the USA whilst the custom is widespread local species of American mistletoe – Phoradendron – are used instead of the original Viscum.
Like our mistletoe, these are evergreen and white-berried but they differ in leaf shape and branching patterns – and so do not have the full ‘sexual’ connection. Nobody seems to worry much about that though!
Inconvenient customs, such as removing berry after each kiss and thus limiting the fun, are usually forgotten. There is also increasing reliance on plastic substitutes, rather than real plants.
And if you notice that this plastic stuff doesn’t look much like mistletoe (other than being green and white), that’s because it’s modelled on the American Phoradendron, not our distinctively branched European Viscum!
Peace, luck and New Year
Mid-winter mistletoe customs in continental Europe have traditionally included seeing mistletoe as a plant of peace and luck.
In France it was often given as a Porte Bonheur – a gift for luck, particularly for the New Year, rather than at Christmas.
This association with peace may have origins as ancient as the kissing custom, as the plant is associated with peace in the Norse, Greek and Roman traditions about mistletoe.
The peace association was a tradition in Britain too at one time, though it has become eclipsed by the kissing custom feature.
During the First World War embroidered ‘silk’ postcards sent from the Front at Christmas often depicted mistletoe, perhaps emphasising mistletoe’s value both as a symbol of peace and as a message for loved ones.
There are far too many other mistletoe traditions to describe them all here – but I’ll add a few of other older ones, and then finish this section of the website with some more modern mistletoe ideas – which are already seen as ‘traditions’ by many.
Warding off evil
One popular version of this suggest that mistletoe brought into the house at Christmas/mid-winter/New Year (depending on your custom) should be kept hanging for a full 12 months.
This will protect the house from evil and prevent evil spirits from entering. The old mistletoe can be ceremoniously burned after new mistletoe is brought in.
Mistletoe as a symbolic regional flower
Oklahoma State Flower: Each State in the USA has a State Flower, and for Oklahoma that flower is (or was) Mistletoe.
Not our classic European Mistletoe, Viscum album, of course, but a local species, Phoradendron serotinum. This is a white-berried species particular common in the southern regions of the state.
As a state emblem it has a long history, being adopted in 1893, 14 years before the Territory became a State. But it has always been the ‘odd one out’ amongst State Flowers, not least because it was chosen for its distinctive berries not flowers. And there was unease about having a parasite as a state emblem.
In 1986 Oklahoma also adopted a State Wild Flower; Indian blanket Gaillardia pulchella and in 2004 the Oklahoma Rose, a cultivar of Rosa odorata, was made the State Flower in place of mistletoe. Mistletoe is now officially the ‘State Floral Emblem’.
Herefordshire County Flower: In the UK, whilst there have been many informal traditions of regional floral emblems, there was no formal scheme until Plantlife’s County Flowers campaign in 2002.
People were asked to nominate and vote on wildflower emblems for each UK County.
Mistletoe, despite not having particularly interesting flowers, was nominated in several counties in its core SW Midlands regional stronghold (see Distribution pages) but it was Herefordshire, which is arguably the best place to see mistletoe in the UK, that won the mistletoe honour.
National Mistletoe Day and the Mistletoe Queen
But in 2004/5 the owners of the wholesale market site in town announced they were closing the site and leaving town – which could mean the end of the mistletoe auctions which had been such a traditional feature and economic draw in the run-up to Christmas
A small group got together to think of other ways to keep the mistletoe traditions alive in the town, and continue to draw visitors in each season. The result was the Tenbury Mistletoe Festival which now runs alongside the auctions (still continuing but at an out of town location).In order to ‘make’ the Mistletoe Festival several new ‘traditions’ were quickly established and now, well over a decade later it seems as if they’ve always happened.
They include National Mistletoe Day – set to be December 1st each year but usually defaulting to the first Saturday in December. Formalising this was difficult but organisers wrote to several MPs requesting endorsement of the idea and it was duly proposed in an Early Day Motion in Parliament. Several MPs supported the idea and no-one objected, so we took that as approval.
Another fixture is the Mistletoe Queen, crowned on National Mistletoe Day. She is the Head Girl of Tenbury High School and is accompanied by the Holly Prince, the Head Boy. This ‘tradition’ already seems as if it is long-established, despite being less than 10 years-old.
In the last few years Druids from the Mistletoe Foundation have also taken part in the Festival, with a new multi-faith mistletoe blessing ceremony.