This week, as we creep closer to the 25th of December, we’re
running a daily excerpt from Jason Boyett’s article “Stealing
Christmas” (which appeared in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of RELEVANT).
In it, Jason takes on some of the traditions we associate with the
birth of our Savior and finds that some of them didn’t start out so
“Christian.” So, since we live in a culture often defined this time of
year by a “War on Christmas” or a “War Defending Christmas,” we thought
it would be fun (and informative) to look at where some of our most
beloved traditions really come from. Yesterday we tackled the Christmas tree; check back each day to find out
more ways that we’ve “stolen Christmas.”
Mistletoe is another one of those Christmas plants with a supposedly Christian backstory. If you hang around botanists, or Latin scholars, you might hear it referred to as lignum sanctae crucis, “wood of the sacred cross.” Past Christian traditions held that the cross of Christ was cut from the wood of a mistletoe tree. Only mistletoe isn’t a tree. It’s a parasite, surviving by attaching to the branches of another tree. The legend has an answer for this, though. It says the parasitism is the result of a curse God put on the mistletoe for its role in the crucifixion. Its current duty as the love sprig? Just a handy way of performing penance for this sin.
Nice story, but mistletoe is another evergreen with a divine history older than Christianity. The ancient Greeks believed it had mystical powers. The ancient Druids thought it to be an aphrodisiac and used it to concoct fertility potions. German pagans got really excited when they discovered mistletoe growing in one of their sacred oaks (see the St. Boniface story above), because they believed a growth of mistletoe was the result of a lightning strike. The mistletoe, they thought, formed the “soul” of these oaken deities. So they would sacrifice a bull upon finding it. Hint: Don’t do this at your next Christmas party.
The ancient Scandinavians considered mistletoe to be a plant of harmony and peace. This is the result of a complicated narrative involving Frigg, the Norse love goddess and mother of Baldr, the sun god. According to Norse mythology, Baldr dies upon being struck by a spear crafted from mistletoe. The death of the sun god brings winter into the world. Despondent, Frigg forbids mistletoe from ever associating with death again. Instead, she decrees, it must honor her son by ever symbolizing love.
So if two enemies were fighting each other in some Scandinavian forest and happened to find themselves beneath mistletoe, they were required to stop fighting immediately, put down their weapons, call a temporary truce and hug it out.
Eventually, mistletoe’s impact on fighting warriors morphed into a connection with fighting lovers. Instead of dropping their weapons, lovers were supposed to kiss under the fortuitous plant. Which brings us to today, when lonely people and IT nerds linger near the mistletoe at the office Christmas parties. Do they do it in honor of Jesus and the cross? Possibly. But don’t forget to also credit Baldr and Frigg.