The Legend of Baldur
The god Odin’s son Baldur knew everything on earth wanted to kill him. His mother was Frigg, the goddess of love. She tried her best to talk to all of the animals and plants ensuring they wouldn’t hurt him. The only problem was that Frigg forgot to get an oath from the mistletoe. The god Loki made an arrow with mistletoe piercing Baldur through the heart. It’s now hung on the door frame and kissed under so we don’t ever forget it. In another version of the story, the gods were able to resurrect Baldur. His mother was so happy that she stated from then on mistletoe would be a symbol of love.
The evolution of mistletoe doesn’t have a wild background story like the one of the gods. The mistletoe is an ancestor of sandalwood. These trees are actually parasites. The roots of the sandalwood trees sink into the ground and spear the roots of trees around them. This allows them to take away the other tree’s nutrients and water.Read More »
The mistletoe has the ability to grow on branches instead of roots. It gains water and sugar just like its sandalwood ancestors this way. As the trees climb towards the sun, the mistletoe hangs on the branches waiting to steal from other trees.
Mistletoe spread throughout the world. There are hundreds of different mistletoe species around the globe. They have a life full of theft and advantages, but they also have a few challenges. If mistletoe seeds are not aided, they fall to the ground and can’t steal from other branches. This means if they don’t get picked up by wind, they can’t find new trees. So, mistletoe evolved into natural selection. It produced seeds that were surrounded by berries. Birds love berries, so they ate them then flew off. The good news for mistletoe is that as the birds flew, they excreted their seeds. This excretion landed on branches so the seeds could germinate. It’s all in good science.
Here is where the kissing part comes into science and history. The seeds from the bird poop are so sticky that they stick to its body and its feet. Sometimes birds have to find a place to sit after eating. Well, they had to use their feet to get those sticky seeds off of their entire body. They scraped these seeds onto the branches. This is how the seeds “kiss” the branches.
A New Tradition
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe didn’t start after the tale of the gods. It became famous somewhere between 1720 and 1784, in England. There were two books published about mistletoe in 1719 and 1720 by John Colbatch. These books did touch on the superstitions and customs of the flowering plant. He didn’t talk about kissing though.
There was a song that mentioned kissing in 1784. No one knows how this custom came to life between those years. Charles Dickens published The Pickwick Papers in 1837 depicting the holiday excitement of kissing under a mistletoe. He said that younger women did everything to run away from men trying to kiss them until they gave in under the mistletoe. Many historians believe it was risking bad fortune to kiss a man this way.
Washington Irving wrote in “The Sketch Book” in 1820 about the popularity of this holiday tradition. He talked about seeing it happen in England. He said the mistletoe was hung in farmhouses and in kitchens. The young men would kiss the girls under it and then take a berry from the bush. Once the berries were gone from the mistletoe, they could no longer kiss the women this way.
People must also remember that Christmas was not a huge festival in the early 19th century. This book made a “rough draft” for some very modern Christmas traditions. After kissing was mentioned in the book, the American audience saw it as something normal to do under the mistletoe. They adopted it as a new tradition. As time went on, the mistletoe tradition stuck, and people all over the world were happy to sneak a kiss under it.
Whether you want to believe the history of the gods or the actual science, it’s fun to think about mistletoe. It’s something that symbolizes the fruits of our daily lives and how we survive through any possible problem. Pucker up, and celebrate mistletoe today.
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