Christmas and New Year Mistletoe traditions
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
There are many explanations of the kissing tradition – though most relate either to the Norse legend of Baldr or to the view that mistletoe is an ancient symbol of fertility. The Baldr legend is covered in the Norse pages – and the fertility symbolism below:
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!
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.