Monday, December 19, 2016
Word of the Week - Mistletoe
Today I'm not examining the etymology of the word itself so much as the history of the tradition of hanging mistletoe at Christmas. Is this part of your family's tradition?
I've never really taken part in it, but certainly we all know that if one pauses beneath mistletoe, one cannot refuse a kiss. In past centuries, this was believed to be good luck and to guarantee love, marriage, and children in the coming year (for those still unmarried). The ball of mistletoe would be burned after the Twelve Days of Christmas to seal the fates of those couples who had kissed beneath it.
But where did the tradition come from? Well it dates back far beyond the coming of Christianity to Europe. For millennia, mistletoe was revered as a sacred plant and thought to contain powers of fertility and good luck and the ability to ward off evil. The plant typically grows on apple trees, but once in a while can be found on oaks (also sacred), so the oak mistletoe is especially sacred and would be cut by Druids with a golden sickle.
The legend goes as follows: the goddess Frigga had a beloved son, Balder, who was the god of summer and hence all things growing and alive. Balder had a terrible dream that he was going to die, so his mother went to every part of nature, above the ground and below, asking them to promise not to kill her son. But she neglected to request this of the mistletoe, which neither had roots below ground nor grew on its own above. So the tricky god Loki, enemy of Balder, made a poison from the berries of the mistletoe and dipped an arrow in it, shooting and killing Balder. For three days, every element and plant tried to revive him, to no avail. Finally, his mother's own tears revived him, which then turned to little white berries on the mistletoe. She was so overjoyed that she kissed everyone who passed beneath the hanging plant.
You can see where this would easily become part of a tradition surrounding the birth of Christ, right? Someone who lay dead for three days and then was brought back to life, ultimate Love triumphing over Death. Especially since this plant was cut traditionally on the solstice already--and the winter solstice had long been established as the birth of Christ (read why here, if you haven't already). It was easily incorporated into new traditions and became a lasting one--though still tinged with superstition.
So where do you come down on mistletoe and kissing beneath it? Fun custom? Good luck? Or something to be avoided at all costs? ;-)