Ah, the holiday season!
The snow! The cards! The intense pressure to do everything perfectly! (Yes, I’m still not a holiday person.)
And welcoming the holidays mean it’s time for all those odd holiday traditions.
Chopping down a tree and covering it with shiny things. Telling your children a stranger is watching them while they sleep, judging their behavior. Forcing kisses on people because they happen to be standing under the mistletoe.
(We have mistletoe hanging over our entryway. It can get awkward.)
Mistletoe is an odd plant, yo.
It’s a parasite, taking water and nutrients from the tree or shrub it infests and, occasionally, killing its host. There are hundreds of different species of mistletoe, and this type of parasite evolved separately at least five times.
Mistletoe was also an important part of the Druidic religion, according to the super unreliable source Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian and naturalist who also claimed a race of humans living in India had one leg. Still, he’s one of the only sources we have on the Druidic religion, because the Druids themselves didn’t write anything down.
But it’s not surprising a plant which refuses to die during the winter would have religious significance. We still find deathless evergreens pretty interesting – we do bring them into our houses and decorate them once a year, after all.
I’ve also heard mistletoe is poisonous. This claim appears to be overstated, but still, nothing good is going to come from eating it.
And of course, mistletoe is the plant Loki used to kill Odin’s son Baldr in the Gylfaginning, a section of the Prose Edda. Everyone and everything in the Nine Realms pledged not to harm Baldr the Beautiful, with the one exception of tiny, innocent-looking, parasitic and possibly toxic mistletoe.
(If you think this sounds like a great premise for a novel, check out Death and Beauty, my romance inspired by the myth of Baldr.)
So why the heck do we look at a parasitic, possibly poisonous plant which killed a god and say… KISS ME!
I did a little research, and the obvious answer seems to be: NO ONE KNOWS!
Some sites claim mistletoe became a symbol of peace and love after the death of Baldr. Other sites go so far as to say Baldr’s mother Frigg was able to resurrect Baldr and then blessed mistletoe with a kiss, which just goes to show you can’t trust everything you read on the internet.
I’d like to think the origin of the kissing-and-mistletoe tradition is a bit naughtier.
According to The Smithsonian‘s excellent article on the evolution of mistletoe, the seeds of a mistletoe plant are “sticky like semen.”
That’s right. Mistletoe seeds look like someone was just very happy to see them.
And it’s not that much of a leap to go from “semen plant” to “kissing plant…”
So get out there and give someone a nice, big kiss under the poisonous, god-killing, sticky-like-semen, parasitic plant.
And happy holidays to all!
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