During Christmastime in France, like in the United States and elsewhere, festive sprigs or balls of mistletoe (known as gui in France) are seen hanging above doors or on beams and light fixtures, inviting anyone passing beneath to share a kiss. But why do strangers and lovers alike kiss beneath the mistletoe? Especially the French, who kiss on both cheeks when simply greeting one another. They don’t need mistletoe as an excuse to kiss. But in France, hanging mistletoe is more often a symbol of peace and a promise of good luck throughout the coming year than a reason to s'embrasser sous le gui. And, French people often give mistletoe to friends as a porte bonheur or good luck charm for the New Year.
Mistletoe is a very mysterious plant. The romantic tradition of kissing under the mistletoe dates back to pre-Christian days, with a lot of fanciful folklore and dispute as to its origins. But most agree that the Druids, Norse, and Romans all hung mistletoe above their doors to keep peace and ward off evil spirits, and it was often left up throughout the year until the following Christmas. It was banned at one time by churches because of its pagan associations.
Les druides coupant du gui le sixieme jour de la Lune, Henri Paul Motte, 1890, Lugdunum Musee, Lyon, France
Legend has it that mistletoe was first used in ritual form with the Celtic Druids in 1st century AD. This ancient legend says that the Druids, who lived on the British Isles in what is now Scotland and Ireland, believed mistletoe to have sacred powers and to be the soul of their revered oak trees. Since the oak trees were bare except for the evergreen mistletoe that was suspended midway between heaven and earth on the branches of trees, the Druids viewed this as a sign of eternal fertility and a gateway to another world. During their celebration of the winter solstice, when the dark force weakened in its battle against the sun and darkness gave way to the first rays of light, the Druids built bonfires in fields, prepared huge feasts in barns, and prayed over the crops and trees. These Celtic pagan priests and priestesses would then gather on the sixth night of the moon (the first day of the Celtic month) to perform the Yuletide ritual of oak and mistletoe. Dressed in white ceremonial robes, they climbed the mighty oak trees and harvested the mystical mistletoe with golden sickles. Because it was considered blasphemous to let this plant that could grow and thrive without being rooted in the ground, touch the ground, white sheets would be spread under the tree branches to catch the plant as it was cut. The mistletoe would then be divided among the community, and the faithful would wear mistletoe charms for good luck and place sprigs above their doors to ward off evil spirits. Over time, a kiss of peace was exchanged underneath the mistletoe.
According to Norse myth, mistletoe was a sign of love and peace. It's said that an arrow made from a sprig of mistletoe was used to kill Baldr, the god of light and son of Frigg, the goddess of love. Baldr’s demise signaled the death of sunlight, which explained the long winter nights in the north. And as Frigg stood over her dying son, the tears she shed began turning into white berries as they fell onto the mistletoe — a transformation so powerful that Frigg declared mistletoe to be a symbol of love that would never again be used as a weapon. From that day forward, anyone standing under mistletoe would kiss. Even enemies that accidentally passed under the plant dropped their weapons, embraced, and exchanged a kiss of peace and goodwill as they declared a truce, if only for the day.
Mistletoe or gui growing on a tree near Mervans, France
These big, beautiful green balls (with evergreen leaves, yellow flowers, and white berries) that grow high in trees because of their magical ability to grow without soil, are actually parasitic plants found on the branches of a variety of trees, least often oaks! They get food from their host but also use photosynthesis to survive. Once birds eat the white berries of the European variety, Viscum album, they begin spreading the seeds that will stick to the bark of the host tree and germinate. The roots of the seedlings then burrow into the bark of the tree and begin to sap water and nutrients from it. Not a very romantic or magical notion, huh?
Trees filled with gui all along the highway in the Franche-Comté region
The European variety grows abundantly in northern France, but can be found all over France. We saw it everywhere in the Bourgogne and Franche-Comté regions. It’s sold in markets during the holidays, but in the past, les marchands de gui would hit the streets in late November to early December, peddling bundles of mistletoe to those hoping for a bit of good fortune or a couple of quick kisses.
Marchand de Gui, Paul Adolphe Kauffman (1849 - 1940), Musée Carnavalet, Paris, France
From its associations with pagan priests to the notions of Norse gods, mistletoe has a rich history in European folklore. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe during the Christmas season is definitely the best known of the mistletoe traditions, dating back to the 18th century in England, when young ladies and gents, especially the serving class, threw caution to the wind and shared a kiss below the kissing bough, a ball of twigs and evergreens decorated with a crown of candles, and finished with a tiny baby Jesus placed in the middle of a large bunch of mistletoe. Kissing boughs would be hung where family and guests were sure to walk underneath.
Over time, the mistletoe itself became associated with kissing. And in France, where la bises were originally reserved for New Year’s Eve as the clock struck twelve and chimed in the New Year, kissing under the mistletoe wasn't taken lightly. A poor mademoiselle caught under the mistletoe couldn’t refuse to give a kiss since it was supposed to increase her chances of marriage. And woe be the girl who wasn't kissed… she might still be single the following Christmas! But by the 19th century, mistletoe had become a part of Christmas celebrations around the world as a festive decoration under which lovers were expected to kiss, and kisses are now exchanged underneath the mistletoe at any time during the holiday season. Did you share a smooch underneath the mistletoe?
Bonne année et bonne santé!
When this self-described Francophile is not reading or writing about all things French, she's dreaming up charming new ways to showcase Lolo French Antiques et More or traveling to France with Lolo to buy delightful treasures for their store. Mimi, Lolo, and their new French Bulldog, Duke, live in Birmingham, AL.