Mistletoe’s (Old English, “Misseltan,” meaning, “missel twig”) standing as an icon of the winter holiday stems from very ancient beliefs. How did this rather ugly, poisonous plant became so popular?
The answer lies in ancient sun worship, particularly of the Celtic Druids. The mistletoe has several qualities that made it attractive to these tree revering ancient Celts. The Celtic Druids were skilled in herbal medicine and magic; mistletoe was by far the most sacred of their magical plants. It grew amongst the branches of the sacred trees, seemingly without sustenance. Having no roots, and thus no connection to the earth, it was considered the sacred plant of the sun.
A tree that hosted a mistletoe plant was a tree marked as particularly sacred by the gods. With its golden color, and growing high off the ground without roots, it was naturally associated with the sun. Most specifically, it was considered to be the sperm of the solar deity Taranis, the promise of the sun God’s rebirth.
It was believed that mistletoe took on the properties of its host tree (this has much truth to it, as mistletoe feeds on its host tree), containing its essence and power. The most powerful mistletoe, of course, grew on the sacred oak. (The name Druid is believed to be a compound of two words, Dru and Vid, strength and wisdom- oak and mistletoe!)
Old Norse tales of mistletoe’s origin blame the plant for the death of the sun-god Baldur, who is felled by a dart made of mistletoe, the only plant his mother neglected after a prophecy of the god’s death; some versions of the story tell that the plant became a tree-dweller after the wrathful goddess flung it there.
Cutting the Mistletoe at the Solstice
When the weather turned cold the leaves dropped from deciduous host trees, revealing the sacred leaves and waxy white berries- a promise of the return of the sun. During the period of the Winter Solstice, branches were harvested with great ceremony and used for a variety of magical and medical purposes- protection from lightning and fire, curing of poisoning, etc. Branches would be cut from the trees on a day sacred to the moon, and sacrifices of livestock offered in return for the precious gift. Belief in the magical powers of mistletoe has long outlived the Druids.
In medieval times, the plant was called allheal, and used medicinally for a variety of ailments, from epilepsy to cancer. Sprigs were hung in stables to protect livestock from the mischief of fairies, and over cradles to protect babes from the vexation of witches. In Scandinavia, its branches were fashioned into dowsing rods to search for treasure. An old English superstition held that as long as a sprig was retained in the home, so would love be retained. It became popular in some households to insure that a fresh sprig was installed in the household every year, and this is probably where the origin of the kissing ritual can be found.
A priestess with sickle and crown of mistletoe
The uniquely English tradition involved hanging clumps of the plant in halls and doorways, where it served as a bit of a love charm- and as an ice breaker between interested couples. As the superstition went, one who wasn’t kissed would not be married within that year- an incentive for the romantically inclined to be sure to find themselves underneath a sprig at a convenient moment. According to this same tradition, the plant was burned at the end of the season, to prevent the charm from backfiring and creating enemies rather than friends. As late as the early twentieth century, a sprig of mistletoe was believed to bring dreams of a future husband when placed under the pillow of a hopeful young woman.