Why kiss under the mistletoe? How did this poisonous plant become a symbol of Christmas?
Mistletoe has been considered a magical plant at least since Roman times, when it was part of the Saturnalia festivals held at the winter solstice. It was sacred to the ancient peoples of Europe, especially the Celtic Druids, who gathered it at both the Summer and Winter solstices. As with other "evergreens," its ability to stay green through the cold dark winter made it a symbol of renewal and "life-giving" power.
There are two kinds of mistletoe: The European plant known to the ancients, found in apple and oak trees, and the kind Americans know as a Christmas decoration, native to the eastern United States. Both have poisonous white berries.
The Name Mistletoe
The name for this plant in Celtic languages is “all-heal” for its supposed abilities to cure diseases, make humans and animals fertile, and bring good luck. However, the English name “mistle-toe” (from Anglo-Saxon) translates as “dung-on-twig”! (Mistletoe seeds are spread when birds eat the berries and then.... well, sit awhile in oak trees...).
At least since the Middle Ages mistletoe has been hung in doorways to ward off evil spirits (it seems ghosts are especially active at the seasonal transitional festivals such as Yule). It was sometimes used year-round to protect houses against lightning.
Kissing under the mistletoe dates back at least to the Romans, probably because of its association with fertility and luck. Because it was associated with peace, enemies (and warring spouses) would “kiss” or declare a truce under mistletoe.
Each time a man kisses a woman under the mistletoe, he should pluck one of the berries, and when all the berries are gone the kissing should stop!
If you want those who’ve kissed under the mistletoe to marry, be sure to burn it on the Twelfth Night of Christmas... which is Epiphany, January 6.
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