The magic of mistletoe

Posted on Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

All of us have enjoyed a quick kiss under the mistletoe at one time or another, but have you thought about where this tradition comes from? The extraordinary form and growth habit of this partially parasitic plant has inspired myths and traditions for centuries.Mistletoe in a tree

Back as far as Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) the mistletoe was used in rituals and medicines. Pliny told of Druids climbing into sacred oak trees to harvest mistletoe with golden sickles. The mistletoe would be caught before it touched the ground to ensure that it didn’t lose its special powers.

To what extent the Druids did use mistletoe in this way is unclear, but the stories persist. For example, in the Asterix cartoons by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, the Druid Getafix harvests mistletoe in the way that Pliny describes, using it to create the special potion which gives Asterix his superhuman strength.

Greek, Roman and Norse mythology all contain stories about the humble mistletoe. Perhaps the best known is that of the Norse god Baldr. He and his mother, Frigg, both had dreams of his impending death, so Frigg made every object swear not to harm her son, except the mistletoe, which was considered too young and harmless to take the oath.

The mischievous god Loki heard about this and made a spear or arrow out of mistletoe, which he gave to Baldr’s blind brother Höðr. Not realising what he was doing, Höðr killed Baldr with the mistletoe. As a result, tradition has it, Frigg’s tears became the mistletoe berries and she ordered the plant to grow high in trees so that it would be out of reach and unable to do further harm. Other traditions suggest that she made the mistletoe a symbol of peace and friendship to make up for its part in the terrible accident.

Today mistletoe is hung from the ceiling and used for the traditional Christmas kiss. This probably derives from ancient fertility traditions. It’s easy to see how this little plant became related to fertility when you consider that it retains its evergreen foliage while the deciduous host plant has shed its leaves and that its berries appear in the depths of winter. The forking shape of its branches, with pairs of leaves, were also associated with the shape of sexual organs and you can work out for yourself the symbolism of the sticky juice in the berries! As a result mistletoe was used to encourage fertility, as a medicine, a charm for young ladies looking for husbands, and in the kissing custom we retain today.

As well as representing fertility, the use of mistletoe as a symbol of peace and luck (following the Norse mythology) is common throughout Europe. During the First World War cards sent from the Front often included mistletoe as a message of peace for loved ones.

Tradition also has it that mistletoe brought into the house at Christmas (or mid-winter/new year depending on the custom) should be kept hanging there for 12 months to protect the house from evil spirits. It should then be burned before the fresh mistletoe is brought in.

Find out more about the UK mistletoe, Viscum album, including how to grow it in your own garden.

Mistletoe image courtesy of dan at