I'll admit I've never been a big reader of Christmas books but I've had fun with a couple of the books by Ace Collins. In this book, Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, we are treated to a potpourri of stories that enlighten us to why or how so many of our Christmas traditions got started and their significance. When I saw there was a chapter on mistletoe I had to read it. How did that get started and why do we need to kiss under it? Here's my thumbnail summary but you really should the whole story.
Mistletoe is a plant that is parasitic in nature and can thrive during the harshest of winters. In ancient times this made mistletoe appear as a kind of miracle plant. When everything else was dying mistletoe was growing. The early Greeks and Celts saw this as only the work of God who could bring a new plant out of a dead winter. Collins writes "Scandanavian warriors would stop fierce battles if they or the opposing soldiers suddenly found themselves under trees where mistletoe grew." (126) The plant became a symbol of peace. Later it began to take on another role--one of protector. Plants were put on doors of homes and barns to ward of enemies and by the Middle Ages it was placed over babies' cribs to ward off illness and evil spirits. Collins continues "As this legend of the restorative power of mistletoe berries migrated to England, the plant became a symbol of love. When a couple passed under the plant, they had to stop and kiss. If they did, God would bless them with everlasting love. Still, to make sure this custom was not abused, the boy had to pick one berry for each kiss. When the berries were gone, the kissing was supposed to end." (127)
About 1843 Christians adopted mistletoe as a Christmas symbol. Christ had promised to bring everlasting life to a barren and hopeless world. Christians in Europe posted mistletoe over their doors not to ward off evil spirits but "to show the world that they believed in the love of God had sent the world through his Son, Jesus Christ. The power of the plant that thrived in the toughest of times also represented their faith. Christians believed that God would see them through persecution, wars, famines, and plagues. His grace would cover them even on the darkest, coldest days." (128) A French legend said that a single sprig of mistletoe grew on the cross where Jesus died. This was sign of God's undying love and showed that new life would spring from the brutality of the cross.
Collins concludes "Today the mistletoe's Christian message of peace, faith, and hope has been largely lost, but even if in a childish fashion, the message of love has remained. . . In a world that often embraces Christmas without embracing its real meaning, maybe it is time to bring mistletoe back into the church. Maybe by having the green sprig with red berries hanging in a house of worship, people can reclaim mistletoe as the symbol of sustaining faith, hope, and love." (130)