Most of the leaves have fallen off the trees now and in several places I’ve seen bunches of mistletoe. That, and the time of year, got me thinking about the tradition of two people who meet under mistletoe kissing. I wondered what the origin of it was. After doing some research I can say with absolute certainty that I don’t know, but neither does anyone else. In the Penguin Guide To The Superstitions of Britain & Ireland, Steve Roud says,
In AD 77 Pliny the Elder wrote his famous description of Druids, stating that they revered mistletoe growing on an oak as their most sacred plant, and harvested it with a golden sickle. This short piece is responsible for more disinformation in British folklore than almost any other.
Roud mentions the kissing tradition, but doesn’t say anything about its possible origins. He also points out that Pliny was describing Gauls, not anyone from Britain.
According to Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, mistletoe is sometimes called “allheal” and is used as a healing plant. I was pretty surprised to read this since mistletoe is poisonous. Maybe mistletoe was given to people as a curative on the principle that being poisoned would somehow make them stronger and better able to fight off whatever else they were suffering from—sort of a folk vaccine. Farmers in parts of England and Wales would also feed mistletoe to the first cow to give birth in the new year, believing this would bring luck to the entire herd. In fact mistletoe seems to have been pretty important as a symbol of luck to farmers. Presumably because of a belief that mistletoe grew on trees that had been struck by lightning, a sprig of it placed in a house would prevent the house from ever being struck by lightning. As for the kissing, all Funk & Wagnall really have to offer—aside from the fact that it’s a tradition—is that in some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe is burned on Twelfth Night, otherwise those who kissed under it will never marry. There is some speculation that the kissing came from the “license of Saturnalia”, but how it got from ancient Rome to late 18th and early 19th century Britain isn’t explained.
Since that’s about all my research turned up, I’m going to make an educated guess that, because mistletoe stays green, like other evergreens it was considered a symbol of fertility. According to Pliny, who may have gotten one or two things right, women did sometimes carry mistletoe as a fertility aid. People may have thought there was something especially special about mistletoe since, unlike evergreen trees, it remained on trees that lost all their other leaves in the winter. Although you can find mistletoe on a tree throughout the year, there is something wonderful about seeing it appear when all the other leaves fall off.
If anyone knows or turns up anything else I’d love to hear it. Here’s a few lines from John Clare’s Shepherd’s Calendar:
The shepherd now no more afraid,
Since custom doth the chance bestow,
Starts up to kiss the giggling maid
Beneath the branch of misletoe
That ‘neath each cottage beam is seen,
With pearl-like berries shining gay;
The shadow still of what hath been,
Which fashion yearly fades away.