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Why Do People Kiss Under the Mistletoe?

European mistletoe (Viscum album) fruits and leaves.
European mistletoe (Viscum album) fruits and leaves. | Source

Pagan or Christian, Yuletide or Christmas?

Mistletoe is an evergreen plant that has a parasitic relationship with a host tree. Much of the folklore associated with mistletoe started in Europe, but has since spread to America and other continents.

Kissing under the mistletoe dates back thousands of years. Some people say the custom has pagan origins but no one knows for sure. Today you can expect to have someone try and grab a kiss under a sprig of mistletoe at a winter party or social event. However, there’s more to the mistletoe plant than just something to kiss under. Did you know that the name “mistletoe” is a generic term and covers a multitude of unrelated plants? Or that its name is a corruption of Anglo-Saxon words which collectively mean dung-twig?

Not every kiss under the mistletoe is reciprocated!
Not every kiss under the mistletoe is reciprocated! | Source

Etymology of Mistletoe

Robert Gorrell in his book What's in a Word?: Etymological Gossip about Some Interesting English Words describes the origin of the word mistletoe as follows.

'Mistle’ in Old English was the name for bird lime, the sticky substance spread on twigs to catch birds. It was related to Old Danish ‘mest’ meaning dung. ‘Mistle’ combined with Old English ‘tan’ meaning twig, to form ‘mistletan’, altered to ‘mistletoe’ when ‘tan’ disappeared as a word. The name reflects the popular notion that the plant sprang from bird droppings.

People noticed a plant grew on tree branches where birds had pooped. Mistletoe berries are an attractive food source for birds in winter. Inside the fleshy berry is a tiny seed which passes unharmed through a bird’s digestive system. After eating them the bird flies to another tree. When it defecates the mistletoe seed is deposited onto a branch along with some fertilizer. This gives seeds a good chance of germinating and maturing.

Do you like to kiss under the mistletoe?

  • Yes, I kiss anyone and everyone.
  • Yes, but only if I fancy the other person.
  • No, I won't go near a sprig of mistletoe.
  • I've never been asked for a kiss udner the mistletoe.
  • No, it's a ritual only for kids.
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Symbolism of Kissing Under the Mistletoe

Symbol
Origin
1. Fertility
Mistletoe grows thick and lush on bare branches.
2. Continuity of life
The only green leaves in a winter landscape.
3. Magical
The plant appeared out of nowhere.
4. Pagan
Worshipped because of above three symbols.
Green leaves of parasitic mistletoe plant contrast with bare branches of host tree.
Green leaves of parasitic mistletoe plant contrast with bare branches of host tree. | Source

Mistletoe leaves and berries have also been associated with reconciliation and friendship since at least Norse times. Enemies meeting beneath a mistletoe plant would put down their weapons and negotiate for peace. This practice may have begun during winter’s cold weather when the mistletoe plant was the only green thing to be seen on bare tree branches. In wintertime, its evergreen leaves stand out on the naked branches of its deciduous hosts. With food supplies short, combatants were weaker in winter, so the ritual grew of greeting your enemy in a peaceful manner during the colder months.

Fertility, Religion, and the Mistletoe Plant

There’s a connection between the mistletoe plant and the followers of both Paganism and Christianity. Since pre-history, pagans have celebrated the fertility and fecundity of the mistletoe plant during their Yuletide festival. This tradition included kissing under the mistletoe. Early Christians found it was easier to continue with some pagan practices than to try and stamp them out. Thus over time, kissing under the mistletoe became a custom common for people from many different faiths and ceased to be exclusive to followers of the Pagan religion.

The Christian Church of England (still) distances itself from pagan beliefs and so mistletoe is not allowed to be used to decorate any of its buildings. The only exception to this is at Christmas, when mistletoe is blessed at the altar at York Minster and used to decorate the cathedral.

View of York Minster taken from 2nd floor of Marks & Spencer building.
View of York Minster taken from 2nd floor of Marks & Spencer building. | Source

Pearly White Berries

There are several species of plant which are known collectively as mistletoe. They all have shiny evergreen leaves and their berries vary from white through cream to a very pale greenish color. The exact color of mistletoe berries varies depending on where it is growing and the type of mistletoe. In autumn and winter, mistletoe berries stand out like white pearls on the bare branches of their host trees. The white color of the berry is said to represent virginal purity.

The sprig of mistletoe used for the kissing ritual should have as many berries on it as possible. The berries represent fertility. Each kiss stolen under the mistletoe should result in one of the berries being removed from the branch by the recipient of the kiss. This symbolizes the fertilization of a female egg and the cycle of birth and death. During the dark days of winter people look for any excuse to have a bit of fun to brighten the long nights. The custom of kissing under a sprig of mistletoe (often encouraged by drinking a little alcohol) is now found across the world.

Pearly white berries of the parasitic plant mistletoe.
Pearly white berries of the parasitic plant mistletoe. | Source

Christmas Tradition of the Kissing Bough

According to superstition, once all the berries have been removed from the mistletoe sprig (in exchange for kisses), the green bough should be left hanging in the house until the following year. This is said to protect the household from lightning strikes, fire and other misfortunes.

Where Does Mistletoe Grow?

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant. It grows on host trees all year around although it’s rarely noticed in summer because it’s hidden by the host’s foliage. When the deciduous tree host drops its leaves, the evergreen mistletoe plant becomes plainly visible. The most common trees on which mistletoe can be found is oak trees and apple trees in Europe. In US mistletoe can be found on a wide variety of trees including firs and acacia. For detailed information about mistletoe species and habitats have a look at "Mistletoe: The Genus Viscum".

At first the host tree is able to tolerate the mistletoe plant with few ill effects. However, over time the mistletoe saps so many nutrients from its host that it kills it. A single tree may live for 20 years with its parasite burden. Sometimes mistletoe spreads through an entire forest and may suffocate it, taking several hundred years to do this.

How to Make a Tudor Kissing Bough

Health Related Beliefs Associated with Mistletoe

Mistletoe has been associated with fertility, love and wedlock since the time of the ancient druids. Norse myths contain references to its powers as an aphrodisiac, fertility potion and general bringer of good fortune. The leaves and twigs of the mistletoe plant are still used by herbalists to make mistletoe tea. This tea is popular in several European countries, in particular Germany. However, the berries of the mistletoe plant are poisonous to humans. If eaten, they cause severe vomiting and gastroenteritis. The symptoms start between 2 to 24 hours after ingesting the berries.

Although rare, there are recorded instances of death from eating mistletoe berries. For instance, Delena Tull relates a tale of toxic berries in her book Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the South West. In 1968, a woman died after drinking a tea made from the berries. She had heard of the old American Indian belief that drinking tea made from mistletoe berries can induce an abortion. Instead of terminating her pregnancy she lost her life. The twelve hours of suffering leading to her death included severe vomiting and diarrhea, followed by cardiovascular collapse.

1 comment

Your Cousins profile image

Your Cousins 13 days ago from Atlanta, GA

"Berry" interesting article, especially the etymology tracing the origin of the mistletoe and how it migrates from place to place via birds. I've never used real thing, but will be sure to hang some faux mistletoe to collect a lot of kisses.

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