Kissing under sprigs of mistletoe is a well-known holiday tradition, but this little plant’s history as a symbolic herb dates back thousands of years. 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. The plant’s romantic overtones most likely started with the Celtic Druids of the 1st century A.D. Because mistletoe could blossom even during the frozen winter, the Druids came to view it as a sacred symbol of vivacity, and they administered it to humans and animals alike in the hope of restoring fertility.
Another famous chapter in mistletoe folklore comes from Norse mythology. 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. 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. According to one sunnier version of the myth, the gods were able to resurrect Baldur from the dead. Delighted, Frigg then declared mistletoe a symbol of love and vowed to plant a kiss on all those who passed beneath it.
Mistletoe’s associations with fertility and vitality continued through the Middle Ages, and by the 18th century it had become widely incorporated into Christmas celebrations. Just how it made the jump from sacred herb to holiday decoration remains up for debate, but the kissing tradition appears to have first caught on among servants in England before spreading to the middle classes. As part of the early custom, men were allowed to steal a kiss from any woman caught standing under the mistletoe, and refusing was viewed as bad luck. Yet another tradition instructed the merrymakers to pluck a single berry from the mistletoe with each kiss, and to stop smooching once they were all gone.
READ MORE: 25 Christmas Traditions and Their Origins
Why Do We Kiss Under Mistletoe?
Mistletoe: Romantic excuse to kiss someone you’ve always wanted to smooch on, or super awkward tradition leading to embarrassment and eternal regret? Only you can answer that question, but Cristen Conger can answer a simpler one: Why do people kiss under mistletoe at all? In a video for Stuff Your Mom Never Told You, Conger explains the ancient origins of this strange tradition, and reaches a conclusion I’ve long suspected: It’s all Loki’s fault.
OK, fine, it’s not entirely his fault, but he is involved, which is why I’m looking forward to Thor 4: Making Out Under Foliage.
Mythology surrounding mistletoe dates back to the ancient Greeks, who believed the plant had healing properties that could aid epilepsy, infertility, and menstrual pain. (That does not mean you should run out and get some to help your cramps — some varieties of mistletoe are toxic). According to The Guardian, the Greeks also associated the plant with fertility because its leaves stay green throughout the year, and some cultures regarded it as an aphrodisiac because of the, er, “suggestive arrangement of its berries.” These beliefs may have eventually led to the association between mistletoe and kissing.
But the another possible root of the mistletoe tradition is to be found in Norse mythology. Conger explains that it all started with a god named “Balder,” aka this dude:
The story goes that a prophecy foretold Balder's death, and his mom, a goddess named “Frigg,” tried to prevent it by going to all the plants and animals and forbidding them from harming her son.
This is where everyone’s favorite god of mischief comes in: Loki found a loophole, realizing that Frigg had forgotten to forbid mistletoe. He made an arrow out of the plant, shot Balder with it, and killed him.
A grief-stricken Frigg declared that mistletoe would never harm anyone again and proclaimed that “anyone who passes underneath the mistletoe shall receive a kiss.” Some believe that the early Christians then incorporated this myth into their own traditions.
Although it looks adorable wrapped with a ribbon and hung from the ceiling (at least until someone vile tries to kiss you underneath it), mistletoe isn’t as friendly as you might think. The plant is actually a parasite that gloms onto trees and steals their water, sunlight, and nutrients. So if you’re having mistletoe in your house this year, don’t just toss it outside when the holidays are over — make sure it ends up in the trash.
The dark side of the mistletoe
In Norse mythology, the plant plays a key part in a story with a violent conclusion the god Balder is killed by his blind brother, Hoor, with, of all things, a mistletoe projectile. Some versions claim he came back to life, and his mother, Frigg, cried tears that turned into mistletoe berries and then declared the plant to be symbolic of love.
It’s a plant that kills in more ways than one. Birdlime, or a juice made from mistletoe berries, is used as an adhesive to trap small birds. Coils of the sticky substance are placed on tree branches. When birds land on them, they get stuck. The birds can then be caught by hand. Though illegal in many parts of the world, some countries still use this method to capture wild birds for eating.
Some species of the plant are toxic to humans too, if ingested.
Origins of the Word 'Mistletoe'
The origin of the word "mistletoe" is every bit as complex and obscure as the botany and myth surrounding the plant. The name originated from the perception in pre-scientific Europe that mistletoe plants burst forth, as if by magic, from the excrement of the "mistel" (or "missel") thrush. According to Sara Williams at the University of Saskatchewan Extension, "mistel" is the Anglo-Saxon word for dung, while "tan" is the word for twig—so the name mistletoe literally means "dung-on-a-twig." Belief in mistletoe's spontaneous generation has long been discredited—in fact, the plant is spread by seeds as they pass through birds' digestive tracts.
What is mistletoe?
- You can get male and female mistletoe - female mistletoe has berries, which is what we hang in our houses at Christmas
- It is mainly found in the south-west Midlands in the UK
- You can't grow it in the ground!
Mistletoe is a plant that has been written about in stories and myths for many hundreds of years.
It is what's called a parasitic plant, which means that it has to grow on other trees to get what it needs to live.
It's not possible for you to grow it in a pot or in the ground on its own.
The most common trees on which it grows in the UK are apple trees, but it can grow on others.
There are up to 1,500 species of mistletoe around the world, but the European mistletoe that we know is a type called Viscum album.Getty Images
While in the UK we associate mistletoe with Christmas, other countries link it more to New Year.
For example, France sees it as a good luck charm and French people often give it to friends as a New Year gift to wish them luck in the coming 12 months.
What is mistletoe?
Despite all the romantic connotations, mistletoe is actually a tree-killing parasite plant.
The plant can only thrive if its seeds are carried to a host tree by birds that have eaten the mistletoe berries.
The plant feeds off the host tree by stealing all the water and soil minerals which is why the mistletoe retains its vibrant green colour all through winter.
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The Meaning Behind Why We Kiss Under The Mistletoe
If you happen to find yourself underneath the mistletoe, you may just get an unexpected kiss.
Christmas traditions run deep in most households and can include anything from going out to buy the tree to putting up the lights on the front porch. Another Christmas tradition that is popular in many households is putting up some mistletoe, typically in a doorway. If you happen to find yourself underneath the mistletoe, you may just get an unexpected kiss.
As far as young couples are concerned, this is a Christmas tradition that is well worth considering. At other times, it may just be a little awkward. It may also leave you wondering why you would put up such a plant in your home and then follow this tradition blindly? When did it become a tradition to kiss under the mistletoe? It’s actually an interesting story that involves mythology from the Druids, Romans, and others.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that feeds off of other plants in the wild. Some may consider it to be almost a romantic relationship but that isn’t why mistletoe involves kissing. Slate said that the Druids were aware of the romantic powers of mistletoe during the first century. They thought that “mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart fecundity (fertility) to all animals that are barren.” They considered it to be good luck when they hung mistletoe over the door. Pliny the Elder, a first-century Roman may also have something to do with the romantic reputation of mistletoe. Although he considered the belief of the Druids to be folly, it did stick as a part of Norse mythology.
Frigga, the goddess of love and marriage was also involved. That goddess loved her son, Baldur to the extent that she and his wife got together to make sure that the plants and animals in the earth would not hurt him. Mistletoe was the only plant that escaped that promise. Loki, the God of mischief discovered the mistake and made a mistletoe spear to kill Baldur. It sounds like an interesting story but in some versions, Frigga’s tears over her son’s death turned into the berries of the mistletoe. They brought her son back to life, so she considered mistletoe to be a symbol of love. Smithsonian magazine says, “Mistletoe would come to hang over our doors as a reminder to never forget. We kiss beneath it to remember what Baldur’s wife and mother forgot.”
In our homes at Christmastime today, mistletoe does not just stand for motherly love but rather, for romance. Fox News said that this may have got its start during the 18th century. Druid lore may have inspired British servants who thought that it was appropriate to steal a kiss under the mistletoe. That tradition soon spread elsewhere and it continues to be found in practice in many parts of the world. In a story written by Charles Dickens in 1836, the practice of kissing under the mistletoe is mentioned.
The tradition said that it’s bad luck to refuse to be kissed under the mistletoe. That being said, make sure that you don’t eat the berries because they may be poisonous. It’s an interesting tradition that has its roots in ancient history.
Here's How Kissing Under the Mistletoe Became a Christmas Tradition
Every year when December rolls around, we carry out countless holiday traditions that pre-date all of us. Christmas trees have been a thing since 16th century Germany. Stockings can be credited back to the days of St. Nicholas. But the whole idea of kissing under the mistletoe started before any of that.
The romantic act that brings together so many couples in Hallmark Christmas movies (and sometimes in real life) is rooted in Norse mythology and the plant itself has had cultural significance for far longer.
In the days of the ancient Druids (around 3rd century bce), mistletoe was highly regarded for its healing properties. It was used to treat many ailments, but the fact that it flourished even in harsh winter weather made people believe it could cure infertility. When mistletoe was found growing in oak trees, they would hold a religious ceremony that involved cutting down the plants and sacrificing two white bulls in the hopes that their god would bless the mistletoe berries. The berries would then be used to create an elixir that was believed to cure all poisons and make any person or animal fertile. The whole kissing thing didn't come about until centuries later (during the Middle Ages), when Scandinavian people shared the stories of the Nordic gods.
We have the goddess Frigg to thank for mistletoe taking on even more of an amorous association. As the myth goes, Odin, the god of wisdom, and his wife Frigg had a son named Baldur who was prophesied to be killed. Frigg met with all living things (plants and animals) urging them not to harm her son. She forgot to reach out to the unassuming and non-threatening mistletoe, which the evil Loki then used to forge the spear that brought down Baldur.
The tears Frigg cried over her son became the berries that can be found on mistletoe and she decried from that day forward that the plant would never be used as a weapon again. It would be a symbol of love instead, and she vowed to bestow a kiss on anyone who walked underneath it. During this period, people would stand under mistletoe trying to reconcile after an argument.
So where does Christmas come into play? Dickens, of course.
It's not entirely clear how or when mistletoe first got pulled into all of the Christmas festivities, but its earliest mention seems to come from the work of Charles Dickens and Washington Irving in the days of Victorian England. Dickens makes mention of kissing under the mistletoe in The Pickwick Papers and Irving's Christmas Eve provided a bit more detail.
People of the time decorated their homes with kissing balls (AKA kissing boughs), which were made from trimmed evergreen, ribbon, ornaments, and (of course) mistletoe. The rule was that if a young woman was caught standing under one of these balls, she couldn't refuse a kiss or else she wouldn't get married the following year. It was also customary that a berry was plucked from the ball with each kiss that occurred underneath it.
Mistletoe may not be as big of a presence in Christmas decor these days (it is poisonous after all), but its rich history makes it far more interesting than a dancing Santa doll.
Mistletoe is actually a tree-killing parasite — here's how it became a Christmas icon
That holiday mistletoe? Not as romantic as you would think.
Mistletoe is actually a parasitic plant. It crowds trees in densely packed balls. Weighing up to 50 lbs, it absorbs water and nutrients. Its berries are toxic to humans and pets and will cause vomiting and stomach pain if ingested.
Mistletoe's uses go back thousands of years. The Celtic druids associated it with fertility because it would bloom in winter. A Norse myth tells of mistletoe being used to kill, and then resurrect, the god Baldur. And his mother vowed to kiss all who walked underneath it. But the real tradition of kissing under mistletoe began during the Greek festival of Saturnalia, Dec 17th-23rd. And would later appear during marriage ceremonies.
Its incorporation into Christmas festivities may have developed in the middle ages. As Christmas adopted traditions from other cultures' winter holidays. By the 18th century, it had become common for men to steal a kiss from a woman who wandered under the mistletoe. Victorian English custom reportedly denied marriage proposals to any woman who refused a kiss.
The proper etiquette for mistletoe kissing:
"The gentleman should pluck one white berry while kissing the lady on the cheek. One kiss is allowed for each berry. When the last berry is gone, there should be no further kissing."* – Linda Allen, Decking the Halls.
What's the deal with mistletoe?
Have you ever found yourself in a potentially awkward situation because you didn't notice that mistletoe over your head?
How did that tradition start anyway? Why do we kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas?
According to History.com, the amorous acts associated with mistletoe most likely began with the Celtic Druids of the first century.
"Because mistletoe could blossom even during the frozen winter, the Druids came to view it as a sacred symbol of vivacity, and they administered it to humans and animals alike in the hope of restoring fertility," reads the History.com article titled, "Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?"
However, the Druids were not known to kiss under the mistletoe. That may have come about with the Greeks. Because of the plant's fertility symbolism, ancient Greeks began kissing under the plant during the festival of Saturnalia, according to LiveScience.com. Roman culture, however, viewed mistletoe as a symbol of peace and reconciled their differences beneath it.
Mistletoe's association with both love and peace are also connected to Norse mythology and the story of Baldr the Beautiful. While it is told in a number of ways, most versions focus on Loki, the god of mischief, killing Frigg's son, Baldr (or Baldur), with a spear, dart or arrow made from mistletoe — the only substance that could hurt him.
In some versions, Baldr remains dead but in others he is revived by Frigg (or Frigga), the goddess of love and marriage. With both outcomes, Frigg's tears for her son became the white mistletoe berries.
In the versions of the story where Baldr is revived, it either happens under the mistletoe or through medicinal/magical properties of the berries. Frigg then decides that all who stand under the mistletoe deserve a kiss.
But even in the versions where he dies, Frigg converts mistletoe from the instrument of her son's death to a symbol of peace in his memory.
Mistletoe is a parasite but the kind used for Christmas decor differs from the one you might seeing growing on local trees. (Photo: Getty Images / ThinkStock.com)
It's unclear how mistletoe transitioned from its sacred status in various pagan cultures to its association with Christmas decor. However, like other Christmas traditions involving evergreen plants, it could be connected with the practice of co-opting existing traditions to draw pagans into Christianity.
The kissing tradition was revived in Victorian England, first among the servant class before moving on to the middle class. According to History.com, men were allowed to kiss any woman standing under the mistletoe. Ladies who refused might be cursed with bad luck.
Washington Irving mentioned the use of mistletoe as a Christmas decoration in 1820, describing it as being hung to "the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids." In 1836, Charles Dickens also mentioned the tradition in "The Pickwick Papers."
Because of mistletoe's connection to Norse mythology and Druid traditions, it was often banned from Christmas decor in Christian churches. Yet its popularity grew, as shown in illustrations from Harpers Weekly and the Illustrated London News during the mid-1800s.
In "Decking the Halls: The Folklore and Traditions of Christmas Plants," Linda Allen details the proper etiquette for mistletoe kissing. This tradition instructs that a gentleman should only kiss a lady on the cheek and that one white berry should be plucked from the mistletoe for each kiss.
However, LiveScience.com warns that mistletoe berries can be toxic and cause vomiting or stomach pain. There have even been deaths attributed to drinking too much tea made from mistletoe berries. So don't ingest them.
The tradition of kissing beneath the mistletoe was popularized in Victorian England. (Photo: Getty Images / ThinkStock.com)
There are, actually, a few mistletoe varieties. The European species is Viscum album while the one often used for Christmas decor in the United States is Phoradendron leucarpum.
Phoradendron is the kind you might find at a local nursery during the holiday season. Keena Tanner, merchandise manager for Star Nursery in Southern Utah, says all the local locations do carry it around Christmas.
While mistletoe is technically a parasite that lives on other trees, Star Nursery only sells cuttings from the main plant, not the plants themselves. As such, the cuttings are in a dying and drying process and there's no worry of it attaching to a living plant.
Tanner says some families choose to keep the same dried mistletoe and use it year after year.
But even this mistletoe is different from what we might see growing naturally on local trees, says Rick Heflebower, the horticulture agent for Utah State University's Washington County Extension Office.
The type of mistletoe that grows in this region naturally is Arceuthobium, or dwarf mistletoe. Heflebower says it can be found on pinyon pines and ponderosa pines. It's also not as decorative as the type of mistletoe hung during the holidays, instead looking more like a deformed section of the tree, he says.
Dwarf mistletoe can make the tree branches look like a "witch's broom," with many short shoots instead of a single, larger one. It also lacks the white berries of its decorative cousin.
"People probably wouldn't go cut it and put it in their houses for decoration because it doesn't look pretty," Heflebower says.
Of course, if you're kissing someone under the mistletoe, you probably don't care how it looks.
Literature and art from the 18th and 19th centuries expanded upon this idea. Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers, published in 1837, portrays the holiday frenzy associated with this particular type of kiss. He writes that younger ladies &ldquoscreamed and struggled, and ran into corners, and threatened and remonstrated, and did everything but leave the room, until some of the less adventurous gentlemen were on the point of desisting, when they all at once found it useless to resist any longer, and submitted to be kissed with a good grace.&rdquo In an art print from 1794, servants in a kitchen are poised for a smooch under the mistletoe, with a caption describing “Saucy Joe” who “rudely” kissed “Bridget the Cook.”
The women in both scenes were depicted as resisting the kisses but having to give in after being caught passing under the mistletoe. Historians have said that they would have believed they had to accept kisses from men or risk bad fortune. Exactly how serious the resistance was is hard to say based on documentary evidence, but Forsyth says there were several stories from the period that depicted women “using the mistletoe excuse to elude possessive husbands and parents” who might have otherwise prevented such kisses.
“A brief inspection of the ceiling would be all that it took to avoid that, whereas being forced into a loveless marriage in a world without divorce or any semblance of women’s rights would have been rather harder to escape,” he tells TIME. Noting that it is extremely difficult to decode a phenomenon two centuries later, he adds, “I can say with some certainty, though, that accidentally finding yourself under the mistletoe would have been very, very far down the list of worries and disadvantages of a woman alive in the year 1800.”
Stateside, the popularity of kissing under the mistletoe as a Christmas tradition can be more easily traced, back to Washington Irving&rsquos The Sketch Book, which was published in 1820.
The American writer had returned from England, and recorded the yuletide traditions he had observed abroad. In the chapter named &ldquoChristmas Eve,&rdquo a footnote reads, &ldquoThe mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.&rdquo
Forsyth says that Irving&rsquos text, a bestseller, played a huge role in accelerating the tradition&rsquos popularity. &ldquoChristmas was only a very, very minor festival in the early 19th century,&rdquo he explains. &ldquoIrving made the template for the modern Christmas in a lot of senses.&rdquo Because kissing under the mistletoe was mentioned in The Sketch Book, a large American audience was introduced to the practice, and eventually adopted this act &mdash and ushered it over the centuries as it went from a semi-scandalous oddity to a well-known mutual romantic gesture of holiday cheer.