Mistletoe was used as a symbol of peace by the Romans. When enemies were under the trees containing mistletoe they put down their arms and made peace. This was a common practice by around 500 B.C. in Rome. This was also a custom among Scandinavian warriors as well. These Roman and Norse practices led to the ritual of hanging mistletoe over the threshold.
Quarrelling spouses were urged to kiss and make up under the mistletoe. In medieval times, people created what they called a kissing bush. This was a wooden frame covered with mistletoe, fruits, nuts, and strips of brightly colored paper. Mistletoe balls were also wrapped with ribbon.
The kissing bough or kissing ball was used in Victorian times. The kissing bough was popular in the 18th century. It was mostly spherical or circular with the mistletoe being woven onto wood or wire. Charles Dickens described this in The Pickwick Papers.
As a kissing bough, this was hung on a pulley from the ceiling so that it could be lowered for the kissing ritual. These larger mistletoe arrangements over time came to replace the single sprigs of mistletoe, which would eventually have consequences.
The English kissed under mistletoe sprigs in the 16th century. This was a very common English practice. Erasmus wrote about his experiences among the English, “Turn where you will there are kisses, kisses everywhere.”
According to one version of this custom, a young man would pick a berry each time he kissed a girl, which was actually based on a common ancient belief. When the sprig ran out of berries he had to stop. In other versions, the girl is the one that plucks the berries.
The custom of kissing under the plant was made more popular in the 18th century when many people in England became interested in Druidism, which led them to follow some Druidic practices. According to some interpretations, kissing under the mistletoe was in fact a fertility ritual among the Druids.
Mistletoe was made a symbol of love by Freya, the Norse goddess of beauty, fertility, and love. She was the one that promised a kiss to anyone who passes under the sprig.
According to myth, a girl who refuses to kiss under the mistletoe will be a spinster. The custom of burning mistletoe on Twelfth Night was intended to break this superstition.
Several legends help to explain how people began kissing under the mistletoe. In one version, this was started by the Norse after Baldur the Beautiful, son of the goddess Frigga, was killed by a dart made of mistletoe. Baldur was the god of light. He was brought back to life by the gods.
In a similar story, Apollo, the son of Venus, the goddess of light, was killed by either mischievous gods or evil spirits. However, he was also brought back to life as well. Apollo was the god of medicine, prophecy, poetry, and music.
In both stories, the mothers failed to protect their sons from mistletoe. In any case the women were so happy upon the safe return of the sons that they kissed everyone who walked under the mistletoe, which explains why the Scandinavians came to see mistletoe as a symbol of peace.