In a moment of quiet, unbridled irreverence, Justin Bieber once confessed, “I should be chillin’ with my folks I know, but I’mma be under the mistletoe.” A peculiar sentiment, considering it followed another statement of his: “It’s the most beautiful time of the year, lights fill the streets spreading so much cheer…”
Sadly, the quotes didn’t actually come from interviews, although the thought of his speaking in rhyme is hilarious. No, they instead came from the lyrics to his 2011 smash hit “Mistletoe.” Funny thing about that song: it is apparently the fourth most-downloaded Christmas song of all time. Christmas music gets people in the Christmas spirit because it reminds people who have been away from it for a full year to think about families and give out love. A typical Christmas song is about how special the Christmas season is, and Justin appreciates the tradition, singing, “It’s the most beautiful time of the year…” What’s bizarre is what follows, as Justin Bieber reverses the idea of Christmastime by using mistletoe, a Christmas symbol, for different purposes. In fact, Justin Bieber is blatantly confessing to manipulating Christmas and the mistletoe tradition to advance his personal agenda of gettin’ some smooches.
“Mistletoe” is a lot of fun. During Christmas, people usually hang a mistletoe bushel over their doorways and whoever is caught standing under it is ensured a kiss. Sometimes people will take off the white berries found on mistletoe plants every time a kiss is granted, and once all the berries are gone the mistletoe is utterly useless and must be disposed of immediately. The mistletoe plant hanging in the doorway is symbolic of the spreading of love, one of the values that makes Christmas so wonderful.
The mistletoe tradition perfectly exemplifies Christmas because it brings people together in a fun way, but this sure as ‘h’-‘e’-double-hockey-sticks ain’t what Justin Bieber is talking about.1 It’s undeniably upsetting that the artist behind one of the biggest contemporary Christmas songs doesn’t appear to be adhering to the Christmas mistletoe tradition at all; one could even argue that he is more or less peeing on it. In effect, with “Mistletoe,” Justin Bieber is challenging the traditions of Christmas—the tradition of universal love to everyone around you, and to fully understand the gravity of this claim it’s important to understand the meaning and history of the mistletoe tradition.
Mistletoe is famous for bringing people together. When a couple kiss under the mistletoe it’s considered to be a premonition of marriage in addition to a life of happiness. Sometimes however, mistletoe brings two people together who weren’t already a couple but in the end they’ll get married and it’s because a plant that’s taped above the door told them to. Mistletoe is the ultimate joiner. But it’s the ultimate joiner more so in the sense that it brings people together in a lighthearted and low-stakes way. It can be sexualized, but even then it’s qualified, a family-approved Christmas coupler.
To be perfectly fair, mistletoe is actually a parasite. For the botanically ignorant out there, mistletoe latches onto trees and plunges its roots into the bark and slurps the tree’s nutrients like a leech as it hangs above with all of its smug parasitic-plant arrogance, piggybacking on its arboreal throne.
The word “mistletoe” is a fun combination of the Anglo-Saxon words “mistel” and “tan,” which roughly translate to “poo” and or “twig,” for the Anglo-Saxon etymological nerds out there. The name came about because birds would enjoy munching on the white berries found on mistletoe and would in turn dispense the mistletoe seeds onto trees via poo. Fittingly, mistletoe is associated with love, romance and life.
Historians trace the mistletoe tradition back to two societies: the Celtic Druids and the Norse. The Celtics likely started the tradition of hanging mistletoe in the home while the Norse likely inspired the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. Thousands of years back in the first century A.D., way back before the environment was referred to as “that place where I put my refrigerators when I’m done with them,” and before a bunch of other things too, the Celtic Druids would gather all the mistletoe they could scrounge from nearby oak trees and decorate their houses with them. The Druids believed that the mistletoe had healing properties that could cure fertility problems in women. Mistletoe is unique in that it blossoms during the summer and winter solstices. It became a sign of rebirth and hope for the Druids during the treacherous season of winter because it managed to stay nice and green; naturally, they would put it in their homes around Christmastime.
The reason for kissing underneath the mistletoe likely comes from the myth of Frigg, the goddess of love in Norse mythology. As the story goes, Frigg’s son Baldr (also a god) had a premonition that he was going to die. When he told Frigg, she lost it and arranged little one-on-one conferences with all the animals, plants, and elements that could cause him harm, politely asking them if they could make sure not to hurt him. She unfortunately totally forgot about that pesky little plant mistletoe. Baldr’s ever-unscrupulous enemy, Loki, capitalized, fashioning an arrow out of mistletoe that he used to kill Baldr, who in reality had all the odds stacked in his favor, what with pretty much everything else in existence on his side. Frigg really blew it.
Thankfully, in the heartwarming version of the story, Baldr is remarkably brought back to life, probably by other gods, and Frigg declares mistletoe not a symbol of harm, but a symbol of love, so whoever walked underneath it would be granted a kiss by Frigg herself.
So these two pieces of European folklore allow us to understand mistletoe’s inclusion in Christmas tradition. What the Norse myth communicates is that the idea behind mistletoe wasn’t necessarily exclusively about love between a man and a woman, but more so about universal love. Familial love. Just…love love, you know? Frigg wanted to dish out kisses because she was spreading the love that mistletoe signified. It was indicative of love over death which fits perfectly for Christmas because it brings not lovers together, but family, friends, and strangers.
In “Mistletoe,” Justin Bieber is shamelessly confessing to ignoring traditional Christmas mistletoe history. Justin Bieber seems to only want to be closer to one person, instead of, you know, his family or even his good buddy Lil Twist.
Christmas is generally about family, not about getting some action with one person, who, honestly, he was pretty quick to ignore in the music video when that other girl came around. In fact, he abandons the first girl to hang out with the other girl, and to make it up to the first girl, he buys her a dress! But it doesn’t stop there. Sure, he writes her a card that says “You’re my Christmas wish,” but he signed that card with his last name. He signs a very personal card with “JUSTIN BIEBER” to a girl that he supposedly loves enough to spend Christmas with instead of his family or Lil Twist.
It’s as if he’s using his name and status as a popstar to get a girl to kiss him under the mistletoe. It’s bonkers.
This is completely inimical to what Christmas is traditionally about.
That’s not to suggest that Justin Bieber isn’t well-versed in his Celtic Druid and Norse mythology, about which I’m sure he has volumes and volumes of knowledge in his brain right next to the lyrics to “Baby.” There’s something else at play here. It seems that in “Mistletoe,” mistletoe is more of a guiding light down an avenue towards undergarments, an avenue that Charles Dickens would surely put a chastity belt roadblock on. “Mistletoe” is the fourth most-downloaded Christmas song of all time, yet it doesn’t have anything to do with the traditional Christmas values of love and family that the symbol of mistletoe propagates. To be clear, “Mistletoe” by Justin Bieber is irresistible and undoubtedly sounds like Christmas. But is it about a traditional Christmas?
Let’s think about this for a second. Today’s Christmas isn’t about family values. Christmas is no longer about traditions. Justin Bieber is just crooning about the new and changed tides of Christmas music. He’s kind of like the Poseidon of Christmas music, or maybe one of Poseidon’s sidekicks. No more songs about bells and whistles and Christmas carolers and chestnuts and playing in the snow and making christmas lists and all that nonsense. That’s because Christmas isn’t about anything other than getting steamy with the man or woman you’re madly in love with or just like a whole lot. Christmas is about getting it on and it just took for a brave soul like Justin Bieber to figure it out.
By the way, “Mistletoe” is the greatest Christmas song of all time.