Make a joke about kissing under the mistletoe and everyone knows exactly what you are talking about. It is a tradition that has seemingly been around forever, yet virtually nobody knows where it all started or why. It is probably fair to say that most people don’t even really know what mistletoe is. Well, it’s time to uncover the mystery. Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?
What Is Mistletoe?
Sure, it’s a plant, but did you know that mistletoe is actually classified as a “parasitic” plant? That doesn’t sound so romantic, does it?
There are around 1,500 variations of mistletoe around the world, small plants that attach themselves to a wide variety of trees such as willow, poplar, and apple. They are known to cause deformations and diseases such as “witch’s broom”, and are considered a pest that reduces the reproductive abilities of the host tree. Only the female mistletoe plants produce berries, but they are poisonous.
All in all, mistletoe doesn’t sound like the best of plants (yet there are still so many mistletoe songs that glorify it). Mistletoe does have some redeeming qualities, however. The Ancient Greeks believed it could be used to heal everything from ulcers to organ failure to menstrual cramps.
Why Do We Kiss Under the Mistletoe?
European mistletoe is the species connected with Christmas, and the history goes all the way back to the 1st century when Celtic Druids considered mistletoe a source of life as it was one of the few plants to remain green throughout the winter. This was really because, as a parasite, it was able to continue feasting on its host despite the weather, but they probably didn’t understand that at the time. Regardless, following the lead of the Greeks before them, they decided the life-giving properties of mistletoe could be used in medicine, in this case, as a fertility aid. The connection between kissing and fertility has led many to theorize this is the true origin of today’s tradition.
Of course, Norse mythology tells another tale. As the story goes, when Frigg, the wife of the god Odin, heard a prophecy that their son, Baldur, would die, she went and begged all the plants and animals on Earth to promise not to harm him. Unfortunately, she forgot to talk to the mistletoe, which apparently took offense. Evil god, Loki, took advantage and transformed the spurned plant into an arrow that was then used to kill Baldur.
The white berries are said to be Frigg’s tears, although some versions of the story then claim that those berries brought him back to life, leading her to completely reverse her stance and name the wonderful mistletoe the plant of love, promising a kiss for all who passed beneath it. From then on it was tradition to hang mistletoe over your doorway to remind us to never forget the vengeful/beneficent mistletoe. Plot holes aside, it is almost certain these stories had a least some influence on future mistletoe traditions.
What Does Mistletoe Have to Do with Christmas?
While mistletoe’s reputation as a symbol of love and fertility continued to grow through the Middle Ages, especially in England, exactly how it became specifically part of Christmas festivities is difficult to determine. An early custom popular among the lower classes gave men license to kiss any woman they were able to catch standing under the mistletoe, and to refuse was considered bad luck (any guesses as to which gender came up with that one?). Each time a kiss was granted one of the berries was plucked from the mistletoe. Once all the berries were gone it no longer had the power to compel physical affection.
Most likely, the Christmas connection was simply the result of mistletoe’s evolution into a part of celebrations and group gatherings, with the holiday season typically being the most festive time of the year.
Kissing Under the Mistletoe Origins
At the end of the day, the real reason we kiss under the mistletoe is a bit cloudy. There is no shortage of myths, legends, and lore regarding mistletoe, yet virtually no evidence or historical trail to justify this parasite’s revered place in our modern Christmas celebrations, or why we often portray mistletoe with red berries even though the traditions are all based on white ones. Therefore, the best plan may simply be to accept the mistletoe kiss tradition, don’t pretend to understand it, and distract yourself with some of the most memorable Christmas movies of all time.
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