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The kissing tradition

Numerous traditions and legends relate to mistletoe – some ancient and some relatively modern. Some of the modern ones might seem ancient – but aren’t really!

1846: kissing under the mistletoe in the Illustrated London News

The best-known is the kissing tradition; hanging mistletoe high in a room and kissing beneath it. That one, surely, is ancient? But no, it really only dates from the 18th century at the earliest – there’s no reference to this as a custom before then. It seems to have only been recognised as a wider custom from the mid 19th century onwards, when Christmas customs started to be standardised across the world. And even then it only applied to Viscum album, the European mistletoe.  So if you’re kissing under another mistletoe species in, say, the USA, the custom is even more modern.

There are many variants even of this tradition – one concept, often conveniently forgotten these days, is that a berry must be removed after each kiss, meaning that each mistletoe sprig only bestows a limited benefit (office Christmas party organisers might be wise to impose this rule).

And, of course, many people don’t even use the real thing anymore and simply kiss under plastic imitation mistletoe at Christmas.  A perfect example of an evolving tradition (and, perhaps, of how detached we have become from the real world).

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Norse and Greek mistletoe traditions

Balder slain by the mistletoe spear, depicted in an Icelandic Saga

The really ancient traditions go back much further. In Norse mythology there is the legend of Baldr the Beautiful, who was slain, through treachery, by a weapon made of mistletoe. There are many versions of this tale, but the key features are that Baldr, a son of Frigg (the goddess remembered every Friday), though immensely popular, was plagued by dreams foretelling his death. To 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, an evil god, realising that mistletoe had been overlooked in the oath-taking, contrived a weapon from it, some sort of arrow or spear. He then persuaded Hod, Baldr’s blind brother to strike with this weapon, ensuring that Hod took the blame. Baldr died from this single wound, and all the gods mourned for him.

In the aftermath Frigg’s tears became the white pearlescent berries we see today.  She also decreed that, instead of being punished, mistletoe should become a symbol of peace and friendship evermore.

Aeneas finds the Golden Bough

In Greek legend, Aeneas was guided to the abode of the dead by plucking the ‘Golden Bough’ of mistletoe. 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.  He is shown a vision of Rome and his future when he visits his dead father in the underworld. To access that terrible place he is advised to pluck the ‘golden bough’ from a tree in the forest and carry it with him for safe conduct in and out of hell. That ‘golden bough’ was mistletoe, considered a plant of protection.

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Druidry – ancient and modern

Another very old tradition is that the druids of ancient Britain used mistletoe in their rituals. This belief, though well-known, is actually based on very little information. We only have the writings of two Romans, Pliny the Elder and Julius Caesar to tell us about druids. And some of their writings are rather fanciful. But the concept has stuck, and been much embellished in the intervening 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.

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. One group regularly visit the Tenbury Wells, the mistletoe trading town, each December and perform a mistletoe ceremony.

There are a few famous fictional druids that use mistletoe too – including Getafix, the druid of the Asterix cartoons. He 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.

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Peace, luck and New Year

Mid-winter mistletoe customs in continental Europe have traditionally included seeing mistletoe as a plant of peace and luck – traditions with echoes of the Norse and Greek legends discussed above. And often at New Year, not at Christmas.

In France mistletoe was often given as a Porte Bonheur – a gift for luck for the New Year. The peace association was a tradition in Britain too at one time, though it has become eclipsed by the kissing custom feature.

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Other traditions – old and new

There are many other traditions relating to mistletoe.  One very old one suggests mistletoe can ward off evil, and should be brought into the house at Christmas/mid-winter/New Year and kept there for 12 months, to be ritually replenished the following year.

Very new traditions include the designation of mistletoe as a regional emblem – in Britain this happened for Herefordshire in 2002, when there was a national initiative for ‘County Flowers’. Herefordshire, where mistletoe is very common, chose mistletoe.  In the USA a similar scheme, way back in 1893, chose mistletoe (a different species to the European sort) as the State Flower for Oklahoma.

Back in Britain, close to Herefordshire, the mistletoe trading town of Tenbury Wells invented two new mistletoe traditions in 2004/5. With their mistletoe auctions threatened by redevelopment a small group (including Jonathan Briggs) invented National Mistletoe Day and an annual ceremony to crown a Mistletoe Queen to publicise the local mistletoe links.

These, particularly the Mistletoe Queen ‘tradition’ now seem to be timeless. And they continue to evolve. The Mistletoe Queen has been joined, in recent years, by the Holly Prince.

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Art nouveau mistletoe

Mistletoe is often depicted in Christmas imagery, sometimes rather simplistically but also, often, very accurately – it is, after all, a classic plant with unique bifurcating branches, perfect paired leaves and white berries. That is, of course, if the mistletoe shown is Viscum album. Some of the mistletoe species used elsewhere, particularly in North America, don’t have the same visual appeal.

Viscum album’s distinctive pattern of growth is perfect for art nouveau design, and from the 1890s through to the 1930s mistletoe was regularly used in designs from continental Europe. There was often an association, at least in France, with the tradition of mistletoe as a symbol of luck and peace at New Year, with many items inscribed with the phrase ‘au gui l’an neuf’ – gui being the French word for mistletoe.

A few examples of art nouveau design are shown here – without any detailed interpretation, just to demonstrate the range and style of some of the items.

Some posters with more examples of art nouveau mistletoe designs are available on the downloads page.

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