The word “mistletoe” (Old English mistiltan) is of uncertain etymology. It may be related to German Mist for dung and Tang for branch, since mistletoe can be spread in the droppings of birds moving from tree to tree, a sign of God’s power to bring life from death. It was this rejuvenation that brought what might have been a “gross” origin to acceptance. In ancient times, mistletoe was considered to be a miracle plant because mistletoe survives in the branches of a tree dead with winter’s touch. Early Greeks and Celts thought of mistletoe as a sacred plant, which represents life and hope.
The thing which sets mistletoe apart from other parasites is its beauty and its ability to survive in a world of death. It is not controlled by man nor can it be eradicated. Scandinavian warriors ceased their battles if they found themselves under trees where mistletoe grew. In their beliefs, these warriors thought it would be against God’s tenets to battle beneath a plant, which God had touched with his hand. Other warrior nations followed suit. Mistletoe became a symbol of peace.
Later, it took on the image of “protector.” Plants were nailed to doors of homes to ward off enemies, whether they be man or beast. By the Middle Ages, mistletoe was placed above a baby’s crib to ward off illnesses and evil spirits. Mistletoe is poisonous if consumed raw, but its leaves and berries were diluted and used in medicines. It was used to treat apoplexy, tuberculosis, stroke, palsy, and epilepsy. In modern times, research goes on to find a use for mistletoe in cancer cases.
European mistletoe, Viscum album, figured prominently in Greek mythology, and is believed to be The Golden Bough of Aeneas, ancestor of the Romans.
Because of the scheming of Loki, according to the 13th century Prose Edda, the god Baldr is killed by his brother, the blind god Höðr, by way of a mistletoe projectile, despite the attempts of Baldr’s mother, the goddess Frigg, to have all living things and inanimate objects swear an oath not to hurt Baldr after Baldr had troubling dreams of his death. Frigg was unable to get an oath from mistletoe, because “it seemed too young” to demand an oath from. In the Gesta Danorum version of the story, Baldr and Höðr are rival suitors, and Höðr kills Baldr with a sword named Mistilteinn (Old Norse “mistletoe”). In addition, a sword by the same name appears in various other Norse legends.
In cultures across pre-Christian Europe, mistletoe was seen as a representation of divine male essence (and thus romance, fertility and vitality).
According to Pliny the Elder, the Celts considered it a remedy for barrenness in animals and an antidote to poison.
When Christianity became widespread in Europe after the 3rd century AD, the religious or mystical respect for the mistletoe plant was integrated to an extent into the new religion. In some way that is not presently understood, this may have led to the widespread custom of kissing under the mistletoe plant during the Christmas season. The earliest documented case of kissing under the mistletoe dates from 16th century England, a custom that was apparently very popular at that time. Stopping for a kiss beneath the mistletoe would supposedly bring the couple everlasting love. To keep the male from abusing the “privilege” of a kiss each time a woman passed, he was to pick one of the berries from the plant. When the berries were depleted, no more kissing was allowed.
In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol he writes, “From the centre of the ceiling of this kitchen, old Wardie had just suspended with his own hands a huge branch of mistletoe, and this same branch of mistletoe instantaneously gave rise to a scene of general and most delightful struggling and confusion; in the midst of which, Mr. Pickwick, with a gallantry that would have done honour to a descendant of Lady Tollimglower herself, took the old lady by the hand, led her beneath the mystic branch, and saluted her in all courtesy and decorum.”
Winston Graham reports a Cornish tradition that mistletoe was originally a fine tree from which the wood of the Cross was made, but afterwards it was condemned to live on only as a parasite.
In 1843, Christians adopted the plant as a Christmas symbol. “Like the mistletoe, the beauty and power of the Son of God sprang forth from the tree on which he was nailed, and the world took note. For Christians, the plant thus became a symbol of life after death, of faith that was so strong it could grow even int the midst of darkness. Like mistletoe, God’s love and true faith could survive even the most barbarous times and the darkest days.” (Ace Collins, page 128, Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas)
Christians displayed mistletoe, not to ward off evil, but as a demonstration of their love for God. A French legend added to this image of God’s love for the plant. Supposedly, a single sprig of mistletoe grew on the cross above Jesus’s head and represented God’s undying love for the world. God’s love would never be seen, as in the form of his Son, again, but would nourish mankind just the same – nourished by God’s unseen hand. The mistletoe “travels” from tree to tree, just as God’s love and salvation spread from person to person.