Like so many others, it is one of those traditions that is a hangover of our pre-Christian past. Both the Ancient Greeks and the druidic priests of the Celtic peoples revered the mistletoe, believing it to have supernatural healing properties. To the Romans the mistletoe was a symbol of peace and used as part of the Saturnalia celebrations.
Like other plants that remained green all year long, is was taken as a symbol of prosperity and fertility. Thoughts of fertility returning to the land were foremost in the minds of the early peoples who relied on the land for their immediate survival, especially in the bleak midwinter. In Norse mythology, the plant was sacred to Frigga (also known as Freya) who was the goddess of love.
In one version of the custom, every time a young man stole a kiss from a girl he plucked a berry from the mistletoe bough. When all the berries had been plucked, the privilege ceased, as is recalled by this ditty:
Pick a berry off the mistletoe
For ev’ry kiss that’s given.
When the berries have all gone,
There’s an end to the kissing.
Did you know...?
The name 'mistletoe' comes from two Anglo-Saxon words, mistel, meaning ‘dung’ and tan, meaning ‘a small branch’. Birds, (usually the mistle thrush) feast on the mistletoe’s berries, then, having had their fill, they do what everyone does after a big meal – they void their bowels. The seeds excreted in this way germinate in the bark of the tree and a new mistletoe plant grows.