Today I found out “mistletoe” literally means “dung twig”.
The name for mistletoe comes from the fact that mistletoe tends to spring from bird droppings that have fallen on trees, with the seeds having passed through the digestive tract of the birds. At the time the plant was given this name, the people didn’t know anything about that, but had observed that mistletoe seemed to spring into existence from bird droppings on trees, thus “mistle” or “missel”, which meant basically “dung”, and “toe”, which came from the Anglo-Saxon “tan” meaning “twig”; hence, mistletoe is another way to essentially say “poop twig”.
Not only is mistletoe a poop twig, but most varieties of this plant are partial parasites, being unable to sustain themselves on their own photosynthesis, so they leach what they need from the particular tree they are growing on. Some varieties of mistletoe, such as the North America Arceuthobium pussilum, are full parasites in that they get all their resources from the tree they are growing on and have no leaves.
So where did the tradition of kissing under a parasitic poop twig come from? The mistletoe has been considered a prized plant throughout history going all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, Celts, the Babylonians, and Scandinavians. The Ancient Greeks considered the plant an aphrodisiac; believed it aided in fertility; and could be used to achieve eternal life.
The Druids considered the plant sacred and when it would grow on oak trees, which is somewhat rare, they would hold a ceremony where a head priest would cut it from the oak tree with a golden knife. They would then sacrifice oxen in thanks for the mistletoe. The mistletoe itself was believed by the Druids to have healing powers; provided protection from evil forces; was a good luck charm; and would counteract the effects of various poisons.
The Norseman had many traditions and legends concerning the mistletoe. One tradition was that mistletoe was a plant of peace and so that when enemies met under the mistletoe they were obliged to stop fighting for at least a day. Eventually, this spawned a tradition to hang mistletoe over the doorway of one’s home for peace and good luck.
According to Ancient Babylonian legend, they had the closest thing to our current tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. At that time, single women looking for a mate supposedly would stand outside of the temple of the goddess of love. Mistletoe was hung over the entrance to the temple and when a potential suitor would approach one of the ladies, they were supposed to bond with him. They did not kiss, however, as kissing wasn’t a way to show affection at that time in the Babylonian empire.
Eventually the use of mistletoe became somewhat common in certain parts of Europe in marriage rites. The plant would be placed under a newly bonded couple’s bed for good luck and to aid in their consummation.
This plant became associated with Christmas from the tradition of hanging mistletoe in one’s home to bring good luck and peace to those within the house. The mistletoe would be hung around the new year every year and the previous year’s mistletoe would be taken down, with its powers apparently tapped. The plant would then provide this luck throughout the year.
This eventually evolved into the kissing tradition we have today. Around the 18th century in Britain, it became popular to create a ball of mistletoe that would be hung as a Christmas decoration. If a couple was found standing under the mistletoe, they were then obliged to kiss if the mistletoe ball still had berries. For each kiss, one berry would be taken from the ball. Once all the berries were gone, all the “luck” in love and marriage was considered to be drained out of the mistletoe and it was now considered bad luck to kiss beneath it, instead of good luck as before. Those who kissed under the mistletoe were said to have formed a bond of friendship and often it would result in marriage. Indeed, in some traditions, this kiss was more or less a promise of marriage to the one kissed. If the two didn’t marry each other, they were said to have been given luck in finding another partner to marry in the coming year.
- According to Norse legend, when the god Baldur and his mother both had a dream concerning his death, his mother Frigga made nearly all things on Earth, both living and dead, promise to never harm her son. She extracted this promise from all things except mistletoe, which she felt was too young to make such a promise. At this point, one of the god’s new pastimes was to throw various objects that would normally kill a person or god at Baldur, which would all bounce off without harming him. The god Loki then tricked Baldur’s blind brother into throwing a small spear with the tip made from a mistletoe twig at Baldur, killing him. Baldur’s brother was then killed for this act by the gods. Eventually, it was discovered that Loki had been behind the whole thing and he was tied down with a serpent over him that would drip venom on his face, which had an acidic effect. His wife then would sit over him and stop the venom from dripping on his face by collecting it in a bowl. When the bowl was filled and she had to empty it, inevitably some of the venom would drip on his face, thus causing earthquakes according to their legend (one wonders why she didn’t just have two bowls). Frigga’s tears over her fallen son were then said to be where the white berries on mistletoe come from.
- The Roman historian Pliny the Elder described in detail the ritual performed by the Druids collecting mistletoe: “Here we must mention the reverence felt for this plant by the Gauls. The Druids — for thusly are their priests named – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, as long as that tree be an oak…. Mistletoe is very rarely encountered; but when they do find some, they gather it, in a solemn ritual…. After preparing for a sacrifice and a feast under the oak, they hail the mistletoe as a cure-all and bring two white bulls there, whose horns have never been bound before. A priest dressed in a white robe climbs the oak and with a golden sickle cuts the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then they sacrifice the victims, begging the god, who gave them the mistletoe as a gift, to make it propitious for them. They believe that a potion prepared from mistletoe will make sterile animals fertile, and that the plant is an antidote for any poison. Such is the supernatural power with which peoples often invest even the most trifling things” (Natural History, XVI, 249-251; translation by David Beaulieu)
- Another custom in England concerning mistletoe was for young girls to take a mistletoe leaf and put it under their pillows at night. They would then supposedly dream about a particular boy or man they wanted to marry someday. In the morning, they would burn the leaf. If it crackled while it burned, that was said to mean they would have an unhappy marriage with the one they dreamed about. If it burned without crackling, they would supposedly have a happy marriage with that person, if they were to wed them.
Expand for References: