Saturday, December 22, 2018

Holiday Plant Lore: Mistletoe

Photo courtesy Botanical Accuracy
Where did the ritual of kissing under the mistletoe at Christmas time come from and what's so special about it? 

Before there were any Christmas trees, the custom to kiss beneath it most likely originated in pre-Christian Europe where it was believed that mistletoe possessed life bestowing properties and was associated with fertility. Along this line of thinking, mistletoe was also used as an aphrodisiac and, if that were not enough, it was used as an antidote to poison and to witchcraft as well. Hence, the custom of hanging mistletoe over a doorway to ward off evil spirits from crossing your threshold.

Photo courtesy Pinterest

Its identity with the winter solstice probably originated in Norse mythology, although the plant was also used by the ancient Romans in their festival of Saturnalia also celebrated in mid-December. In Scandinavia, mistletoe is associated with the pagan goddess Frigga who is married to Odin, king of all the Norse gods. She is also the Norse goddess of love and mother of Balder, god of the summer sun. And it is with this story, in which Frigga and the gods restore her son to life, where mistletoe's particular association with Christmas probably began.

The legend goes something like this. One evening, Balder had a dream in which he foresaw his death. The next day, he told his mother his dream and she became greatly alarmed for if Balder were to die not only would she lose her beloved son but all life on earth would perish into darkness. Frigga immediately went into action to avoid such a catastrophe. She had all the known elements (air, fire, water and earth) along with all the known animals and plants vow that they commit no harm to Balder. Unfortunately, unbeknown to Frigga, her son had one enemy, Loki, the god of evil who knew one plant that Frigga had overlooked in her frenzy to keep Balder alive and that plant was the humble mistletoe which grew as a vine on both the apple and oak trees. Knowing of Frigga's oversight, Loki made an arrow with a tip hewn from the mistletoe he had gathered and maliciously gave it as a gift to the blind god of winter Hoder who, not realizing what he was doing, shot the arrow and unwittingly struck Balder dead. Just as Frigga feared, the earth darkened and all of the earth's creatures wept for her son. 

But as this is a folktale and we are dealing with gods and not mere mortals, Balder was miraculously brought back to life. Frigga was overjoyed and the tears she shed fell on the mistletoe magically creating its characteristic white berries. From that day on, she decreed that mistletoe would no longer be an agent of evil but instead a symbol of love and peace and that all gods and humans should kiss beneath its boughs to commemorate her son's return.

It's not much of a leap, then, to see how this Norse legend which celebrates love over death and destruction made its way into European Christianity and pageantry as both Balder's rebirth and Christmas celebrate the world's renewal and emergence into "light." And that is the story of mistletoe.