We all know that if you stand beneath a sprig of mistletoe at Christmas time, you're likely to receive a kiss. But how many of us know why?

A semi-parasitical plant that's poisonous to humans, it's not obviously romantic and while research touched upon the Greeks, early Christians and Victorians, it did not reveal a definitive answer. It did, however, continually reference the Norse myth of Frigg and her ill-fated son Balder, a fable so captivating it bears repeating.

Now, as with all ancient tales, it has fallen victim to variations in plot over time, but the general gist goes as follows: Frigg, the Aesir goddess of love, marriage and destiny, could see the future but, crucially, could not change it. When she foresaw the death of her beloved son Balder, the god of light, she extracted a promise from every creature, object and force of nature that they would not harm him. Unfortunately, she overlooked one thing, the mistletoe plant, which seemed too small and weak to pose any danger.

When the mischievous god Loki discovered Frigg's oversight, he fashioned a spear made of the poisonous plant. He took this to Balder's blindbrother Hd, the god of darkness, and offered to teach him to throw, guiding the arrow directly into Balder's heart. Devastated by his death, Frigg wept bounteous tears, which manifested themselves as the berries of the plant.

In some versions of the legend, it was agreed that mistletoe would never again be used as a weapon, and that any two people passing under it would exchange a kiss in memory of Balder. In others, the story of Balder ends happily. He is brought back to life and, in turn, a grateful Frigg makes mistletoe a symbol of peace and love, and promises a kiss to all who pass under it.

Myths aside, there is a proper etiquette for kissing under mistletoe that should be observed. First, the man can only kiss a woman or girl on the cheek and second, when he does so, he must remove a berry from the mistletoe sprig. After all the berries are gone, the kissing must end, too.

Words by Rachel Ward.

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