christmas traditions

  • Why We Kiss Under the Mistletoe & How it Became a Christmas Tradition

    When did mistletoe become a Christmas tradition? And why do we kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas? Like many traditions, the origin story of mistletoe at Christmas has many influences.

    How Mistletoe Became a Christmas Tradition

    In the wild, mistletoe grows as a parasite, feeding off its host tree. But within Christmas tradition and pagan folklore, it’s a symbol of love and romance—and of course, kissing.

    So, how did a parasitic plant become associated with love and affection at Christmastime?

    Like most traditions, the origin story of mistletoe at Christmas has many influences.

    What’s In a Name? What ‘Mistletoe’ Means

    As we alluded to in the opening, mistletoe is actually a parasitic plant. According to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), there are 1,300 species of mistletoe in the world—20 of which are actually endangered worldwide.

    “When a mistletoe seed lands on a suitable host, it sends out roots that penetrate the tree and draw on its nutrients and water,” NWF explains. “Mistletoes also can produce energy through photosynthesis in their green leaves.”

    Now for the funny part: Mistletoe gets its name from the Anglo-Saxon words “mistle” and “tan,” which mean “dung” and “twig,” respectively. The modern translation? “Poop on a stick.” Apparently, Anglo-Saxons noticed that mistletoe grew where birds left their droppings.

    Mistletoe: A Centuries-Old Symbol of Health & Love

    Mistletoe has been a symbolic herb for centuries. In fact, according to History.com, several cultures “prized” mistletoe for its alleged healing properties.

    “The Greeks were known to use it as a cure for everything from menstrual cramps to spleen disorders, and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder noted it could be used as a balm against epilepsy, ulcers and poisons,” History.com explains.

    When it comes to mistletoe’s romantic associations, the Celtic Druids and the Norse are credited with that.

    For the Druids, mistletoe’s ability to bloom during winter made it a symbol of vivacity, History.com says. As a result, they often used the plant on animals and humans in hopes of boosting or restoring fertility.

    As for the Norse, mistletoe plays an important role in ancient mythology, which helps explain why mistletoe is associated with kissing.

    “As the story goes, when the god Odin’s son Baldur was prophesied to die, his mother Frigg, the goddess of love, went to all the animals and plants of the natural world to secure an oath that they would not harm him,” History.com details. “But Frigg neglected to consult with the unassuming mistletoe, so the scheming god Loki made an arrow from the plant and saw that it was used to kill the otherwise invincible Baldur.”

    Another version claims the gods were able to bring Baldur back from the dead with mistletoe. Elated by the return of her son, Frigg “declared mistletoe a symbol of love and vowed to plant a kiss on all those who passed beneath it.”

    How Mistletoe Became a Christmas Tradition

    How mistletoe made the leap from symbol of love and vitality to “Kiss-mas” tradition isn’t completely clear.

    As History.com tells us, by the 18th century kissing under the mistletoe had become widely embedded in Christmas tradition, and appears to have started among servants in England and spread to other classes from there.

    To refuse a kiss was bad luck, as long as berries were still left on the mistletoe. As biologist Rob Dunn describes an article in Smithsonian Magazine:

    “As Washington Irving wrote in the 1800s, ‘young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under [mistletoe], plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.’”

    Pucker Up for Tradition

    While the meaning behind the mistletoe name is less than savory, it’s history in ancient folklore and Christmas tradition is rooted in luck, love, and romance. So, pucker up in the name of tradition this Christmas.

    Ready for another history lesson? Learn about the history of Christmas stockings.

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  • How Did Red & Green Become Traditional Christmas Colors?

    Have red and green always been part of Christmas tradition? The answer may surprise you.

    Why Red & Green Are Christmas Colors

    From poinsettias to Christmas stockings hung by the fire with care, the Christmas season is dripping with vibrant reds and greens as far as the eye can see. But how did red and green become the signature color combination of Christmas?

    Like many Christmas traditions, the history of why greens and reds are associated with the season is storied and debated. In this piece, we highlight the origin stories—one of which will undoubtedly surprise you.

    “Holly Jolly” Inspiration from Ancient Pagans

    While the Christmas holiday itself is rooted in religion, there are several pagan infusions that have shaped how we celebrate. And as some report, the greens and reds are one of those hybrid traditions—thanks to holly plants.

    As Reader’s Digest reports: “Ancient Celtic peoples revered red- and green-colored holly plants for being evergreen and believed holly was meant to keep Earth beautiful during the dead of winter. So when they and other cultures celebrated the winter solstice, they decorated their homes with holly to bring protection and good luck to their families in the coming year.”

    It’s also been reported that ancient Romans used holly as part of their winter solstice celebrations, too.

    The Crown of Thorns

    Holly actually plays a double role in the history of this tradition. Holly is closely associated with the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head before he died on the cross. As a fun fact, holly is known as “christdorn” in German, which means “Christ thorn.”

    Legend says the berries were originally white, but the blood Jesus shed for our sins forever stained the berries red.

    The Paradise Play

    This explanation is one of the more colorful (pun intended) theories.

    But as David Landry, who religious studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, told a local news station, he believes red and green likely became part of tradition thanks to a 14th century play depicting the world’s first man and woman.

    “One of these plays was the Paradise play—the fall of Adam and Eve,” he told the station. “The traditional date for that was Dec. 24.”

    More specifically, the storied apple prop was red, and of course, the tree was green.

    Coca-Cola’s Iconic Santa Claus

    Arielle Eckstut, co-author of Secret Language of Color, has spoken to many publications about the Christmas colors origin stories. She attributes the rise of the colors to two things. The first is holly.

    "Holly has played a huge part in this red and green association," she told NPR with confidence.

    As for her second theory, that one’s more interesting, dating back to a Coca-Cola hiring decision in 1931.

    “Coca-Cola hired an artist to create a Santa Claus," Arielle said in an interview with NPR. "They had done this before, but this particular artist created a Santa Claus that we associate with the Santa Claus today in many ways: He was fat and jolly—whereas before he was often thin and elf-like—and he had red robes.”

    “It solidified in our collective imaginations the red of Santa's robes with the green of fir trees and holly and [poinsettia] that we already had in our minds,” she added.

    According to NPR, that artist was Haddon Sundblom. Since his art was such a bit hit, Coca-Cola continued working with him for decades.

    Photo Credit: Coca-Cola via Miel Van Opstal/Flickr

    Colorful Threads of the Same Fabric—That’s Tradition

    Every tradition we hold dear has a variety of influences and evolves over time—and the signature colors of Christmas are no exception.

    While there’s no one agreed upon point of origin, it’s safe to say that every theory has shaped the overall story of the colors of Christmas. And at the end of the day, it’s simply tradition.

    What long-time or unique Christmas traditions does your family honor each year? Tell us in the comments section below.  

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