What Do Norse Gods and the Headless Horseman Have to Do With Mistletoe?

But Why Friggin’ Mistletoe?

When I was a young kid, every Christmas my mother thumb-tacked a sprig of mistletoe in the archway between the porch and the living room. This was a natural stopping point for guests at our house because the coat closet was right there. They would hand over their coats, most often to me, and Mom would gush.

“Oh, you’re under my mistletoe! Now you two have to kiss.”

This was a real drag when I was holding some old auntie’s coat. But it seemed a spectacular idea when the coat belonged to the pretty daughter of one of my parent’s friends.

One day I asked my Mom, “Why do we do this whole thing with the mistletoe?”

“‘Cause it’s fun,” she replied.

“No. I mean how did the tradition begin?” I followed.

She had no idea.

Loki, the trickster, jokingly asked her if she really spoke with every single living thing. She casually mentioned that she had skipped mistletoe…

I got part of the answer 30 years later from a tour guide in Sweden. Here’s what I got:

In Norse mythology, Odin, the god known as the Master of Ecstasy, was married to Frigg, the goddess of love and desire. Clearly, a match made in heaven. They had a son, Baldur, who, like most bald men, was incredibly handsome, gracious and fun to be around—except in the morning. That’s when he recalled his recurring dream of being murdered. This really freaked out Frigg, so she met with every single living thing on earth and made it swear not to harm her son.

Loki, the trickster, jokingly asked her if she really spoke with every single living thing. She casually mentioned that she had skipped mistletoe because it was so harmless, she didn’t think she needed to bother asking it for such a promise. Then Loki, that evil prick, made a spear out of some dried mistletoe and tricked a blind god, Hodr, into throwing it at Baldur, who was struck and killed.

Frigg was woebegone (sounds Norse, right?). Her tears formed berries upon the mistletoe as she wept over her son. Then she stood and decreed that mistletoe would never again be used that way. She pronounced that from that moment on, it would be a symbol of love and that she herself would kiss any living thing that stood beneath it. And Odin was cool with that.

Odin was cool with that.

Later, Scandinavian people began kissing each other when standing beneath mistletoe, in memory of this event.

“But how did this become a Christmas tradition?” I asked.

She had no idea.

Later that same year, I took a Christmastime walking tour of the Gramercy Park area. The guide explained that Washington Irving either extolled or actually conceived of every Christmas tradition we have today, from Santa Claus to the Yule Log. And in the short story “Christmas Eve,” he linked mistletoe to Christmas forever. The guide pulled out an index card and read a passage from the story:

“The mistletoe is still hung up in farmhouses and kitchens at Christmas; and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases.”

Aah! It seems Washington Irving of “Sleepy Hollow” fame simply lifted Frigg’s contrivance and made it a part of Christmas!

Now before mistletoe, people did decorate their homes at Christmas with Kissing Balls made of evergreens and ribbon. Single women caught standing beneath them by a bachelor could not refuse him a kiss, lest, as the lore decreed, she would remain a spinster until the following Christmas. So Washington Irving actually did a mash-up in “Christmas Eve.” After he did, it was all mistletoe, all the time, for Christmas. And when the Victorian Era abated, anyone under the mistletoe was subject to a smooch, not just “spinsters” afraid of staying single another year.

I’m really glad it went that way, to tell you the truth. I can’t imagine hearing my Mom gush.

“Oh, you’re under my balls! Now you two have to kiss.”

Merry Christmas everyone. Remember, a kiss is just a kiss…

This Yuletide, actually tell the people you love… that you love them. What better time?