Mistletoe is an obligate parasitic plant with a rich history of symbolic meaning. In European paganism, the mistletoe was understood as the host oak tree’s genitals. The Druids ritually chopped it off with a gold-colored sickle, as a kind of “symbolic emasculation.”¹
The juice of its berries was seen as the tree’s sperm, having “great regenerative virtue.” So in pre-Christian Europe mistletoe was associated with the spark and spice of life.
In cultures across pre-Christian Europe, mistletoe was seen as a representation of divine male essence (and thus romance, fertility and vitality), possibly due to a resemblance between the berries and semen.²
In ancient Roman myth, Aeneas is prompted by Sibyl to descend to the underworld. He carries mistletoe on his journey, which enables his safe return to everyday life. Robert Graves also believes a “‘certain herb’ that raised Claucus from the tomb” was probably mistletoe.³
Throughout the Middle Ages, the mistletoe evokes feelings of fertility and vitality. By the 18th century, it was incorporated into Christmas celebrations.5
Today, Christmas revelers feel obliged to kiss under the mistletoe. Some trace this curious custom to Scandinavia, others say its roots go further back to the Roman Saturnalia festival.
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¹ Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Combined edition, London: Penguin, 1992, p. 176.
³ Graves, op. cit.
4 James Frazer’s classic and influential The Golden Bough (1890) treats the Balder story at length. See https://www.bartleby.com/196/171.