The Historical Journey Under the Mistletoe

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Mistletoe. Viscum album, or  Phoradendron serotinum depending on where you’re located. This plant, with its plush, green leaves and tiny white berries has gained fame over the centuries for being a popular Christmas time decoration in which people find themselves pressured to kiss under. Walking around campus you may see seasonal decors such as snowflakes, strands of lights, or even the occasional decorative tree peaking through dorm windows, but rarely will you see this seasonal shrubbery, but if you’re looking for it, it’s often that you can find mistletoe hung over doorways or eves in order to spur this affection. Although it’s a fairly common tradition, many who practice it don’t exactly know why we kiss under the mistletoe. That’s where I come in.

Although mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum) can be found in North America , this tale traces back to its European cousin, Viscum album, and back to Norse Mythology. Although historians still debate the true origin of its romantic overtones, many postulate that it stems from the tale of the death of Baldur, son of Odin and Frigg.

 It is said that Baldur was prophesied to meet his end, and in an attempt to spare him of this fate, his mother begged every entity in the cosmos, both living and nonliving, to not harm her most beloved son. Loki, god of mischief found this intriguing, and in disguised he inquired further into Frigg’s crusade. He asked her “Did all things swear oaths to spare Baldur from harm?” to which Frigg replied that all things did, in exception of Mistletoe, but being that it is so small and innocent, she did not worry to ask protection from it, as it could not possibly harm her son. The gods made a game out of Baldur’s new immunity by throwing stones and spears and anything else they could at him, and laughed as they left him unharmed; In this time, Loki sought out Mistletoe and crafted a spear out of it. Chaos unfurled and Baldur was struck with the spear. I should mention that while this was incredibly sad because their beloved friend and clansman had been gravely injured, it was also a symbol; the first presage of Ragnorok, the downfall of the Gods as well as the entire cosmos. In some versions, Baldur was condemned to Hell, while in other, less morbid versions, Baldur was resurrected and Frigg, Goddess of love, was overjoyed and declared Mistletoe as a symbol of love and swore to kiss those who passed beneath it. 

Other historians believe that it traces back to the Celtic Druids, as it could blossom in the midst of winter, marking it a symbol of vitality, vivacity, and fertility. These associations continued throughout the middle ages and were eventually incorporated into the Christian holiday, becoming commonplace by the 18th century. One tradition allowed men to steal a kiss from any woman standing below it, and any who refused were fated with bad luck. Another tradition instructed participants to steal a kiss for every berry on the plant, plucking one in-between each display of affection, stopping once they were all in hand. 

There you have it, the lengthy, but non-concrete history of the romantic, parasitic shrubbery that has led to many Christmas classics such as “Holly Jolly Christmas”, “Mistletoe and Holly”, “Under the Mistletoe”, and of course, absolute bop of 2011, Justin Beiber’s “Mistletoe.” — Haley Berger


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