A sprig of mistletoe hung over a doorway during Christmas remains one of the season's most beloved traditions and it has an ancient history. The druids in Celtic Britain considered it more than mere decoration, and worshiped its spiritual and healing powers. Even modern medicine has experimented with mistletoe as a possible treatment for cancer. The holiday season is not complete without the familiar festive sight of mistletoe.
Soul of the Oak:
The "soul" of the oak, the Greeks believed mistletoe possessed powers to increase fertility, an antidote from poison and as a love potion. Known as a parasitic plant, mistletoe grows attached to trees, especially oak, since it has no roots of its own. Its Greek name means "thief," referring to its rootless existence. Saturnalia, the ancient Roman festival in December that worshiped Saturn, was the origin of kissing under a mistletoe as a way to promote fertility.
Druids and Mistletoe:
The druids in Great Britain were the first in Europe to use mistletoe in their rituals. Their sacred seasons were solstice in midsummer and winter. A gold sickle had to cut the mistletoe branches without letting them touch the ground to ensure purity. Prayers and animal sacrifices were a part of the rites. All who received the branches would enjoy good health and blessings from the gods. Enemies who met under mistletoe would lay down their arms for 24 hours, and sprigs were hung over doorways to ward off evil spirits.
Nordic legend offers its version of mistletoe during Christmas. Balder, the god of sun, was killed by an enemy with an arrow made from a mistletoe branch. Frigga, his mother and goddess of love, prayed until he magically returned to life. Her tears became the white berries of mistletoe. Grateful for Balder's life, she kissed all villagers under the mistletoe and proclaimed all who kissed beneath it would be safe from harm.
Since druids in their pagan ceremonies used mistletoe, the Christian church forbad its use in its religious services for centuries. Folklore persisted and peasants in England, Scotland, Wales and Germany and France still used mistletoe during the holidays during the Middle Ages. They believed mistletoe, when placed in cribs, protected newborns from kidnappers. Branches or balls of it hung from the ceilings in homes and barns to promote good luck, love and prevent fires and bad dreams. In York, England, the local minister defied the ban and placed mistletoe on the alter.
Kissing Under Mistletoe:
By the 18th century, the church rescinded its ban and mistletoe could officially take its place in holiday celebrations. The custom of kissing under mistletoe was seen as a popular and accepted sign of love and romance. A woman could not refuse a kiss if she stood under a mistletoe "kissing ball" during the holidays. A woman who did not receive a kiss indicated she would have bad luck in love for one year. Seen as a promise of marriage, a kiss under mistletoe meant a serious commitment. On the 12th night of Christmas, its branches were burned to ensure true love would prevail.