Mythical Misteltoe

Mistletoe has been considered a symbol of love for many years, but why did the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe start?


Julius Sachs

Diagram of how mistletoe invades tree branches.

Lilly Wolfe, Columnist

Despite being a parasitic and often poisonous plant, the odd tradition of kissing under the mistletoe during the winter season still persists to this day. Eastern Europeans often considered the plant to be magical and possess mythical healing powers. In order to fully understand why, we need to examine the intriguing biology of the plant.

Mistletoe is a small bush consisting of typically white, pea sized berries and long, pointed leaves. According to Science Direct, mistletoe bushes are parasitic and are able to tap into a tree’s vascular system. This means that some of the water the tree collects then goes to the bush rather than where the tree intended. Mistletoe is also commonly seen very high in the tree because the sticky berries can get stuck to birds and they will rub them off on high branches, where the berry then begins to germinate. Another interesting fact is that the plant is able to blossom in winter, which is why the mistletoe tradition tends to peak during the winter months.

The height of the plant and the pure white color of the berries led some prominent Roman and Greek figures to believe that the plant was a gift from the gods. Pliny the Elder of ancient Rome even said it could be used to treat epilepsy and prevent miscarriages, according to TedEd. A Greek myth called ‘Aeneas and the Golden Bough’ depicts a Greek hero who had to retrieve golden mistletoe to complete an important journey. Another popularized myth that has a lot to do with mistletoe’s modern significance comes from Norse mythology.

The story goes that the strong and peaceful Baldur, son of Odin and Frigg, had been experiencing visions of his imminent death. His concerned mother, Frigg, went to all of the living things in the land and made them swear to never harm her son; all except one, that is. With his newfound immortality, Baldur held a feast in which guests would try and fail to kill him with different weapons. The jealous trickster Loki wanted to put an end to this. He tricked Frigg into telling her about the one thing which could still kill her son: Mistletoe. Loki fashioned an arrow out of the plant and pierced Baldur through the chest, killing him. Frigg was devastated, and it is said that her tears are what caused the pearl like berries to sprout amongst the plant’s leaves. The gods pitied her and brought her son back to life. She made the plant symbolize love and life and demanded that everyone who passed beneath the plant’s berries should hug.

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe became popular in England, and is also recorded during the midwinter Greek festival of Saturnalia. The tradition was first seen in a 1784 British musical. It became popular in America when British colonists saw American Mistletoe, which looked very similar to the Old World varieties they were familiar with.

Although the plant might not be quite as magical as once believed, Verywell Health says that, if used correctly, the plant can help heal muscle aches and treat the common cold. In Europe, mistletoe extract is sometimes used to help improve the lives of cancer patients by easing some of the pain that comes from treatments. So perhaps the storytellers of old weren’t so far off after all!