The History of Mistletoe

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Everyone knows kissing under the mistletoe is a popular tradition at Christmastime. A pretty sprig or wreath of mistletoe, often tied with a ribbon or bow is hung from the ceiling or over a door facing, creating the perfect opportunity to steal a kiss that might otherwise be forbidden.

But what is mistletoe and why is it associated with kissing?

What Is Mistletoe?

Mistletoe stands out in the plant community because it is parasitic in nature. Unlike other plants that grow in the soil, mistletoe can only grow if its seeds find their way to tree branches or trunks.

  • Each sprouted mistletoe seed sends a single root into its host tree, most often an oak. As it grows, it may surround an entire branch.
  • The word mistletoe stems from the second century Anglo-Saxon word “mistle,” which means dung and the word “tan,” which means twig. This suggests that people once believed mistletoe grew from birds or their droppings.
  • Although used in some alternative cancer treatments, most species of mistletoe are poisonous to eat so they should be kept away from young children.

Where Did Mistletoe Come From?

Because of its unique nature, mistletoe has a rich history with lots of associated mystery and myth. Here are some highlights:

  • The Celts, Druids and Norse people all believed that mistletoe had magical powers and many cultures tied this plant to fertility, spontaneous generation and aphrodisiac properties.
  • The Celtic word for mistletoe translates to “all heal.”
  • The Druids are believed to have had a sacred ceremony during which they cut mistletoe from an oak tree with a golden knife. The mistletoe would then be used in medicines to cure sterility and act as an antidote for poisons.
  • Druids hung mistletoe over doorways, believing it would bring happiness to all who entered their homes and protect against evil.
  • In medieval England, a common practice among women who wished to conceive was to wrap mistletoe around their waists.
  • Also during medieval times, mistletoe was hung from ceilings and above doors in homes and stables to repel evil spirits and bring fertility.
  • In Brittany, Northern France, a legend developed that the cross on which Jesus was crucified was made from mistletoe wood. Because of this, mistletoe is referred to as Herbe de la Croix in that region. According to the legend, mistletoe once grew like other plants. Because of its role in this horrible crime, however, the mistletoe plant was cursed and forced to become a parasite dependent on other trees in order to live and grow.

Why Do People Kiss Under Mistletoe?

Many historians believe the custom of kissing under the mistletoe stemmed from an ancient Norse legend: the myth of Baldur:

  • The story begins as the Norse Goddess Frigga makes every plant, animal and inanimate object promise not to harm her beloved newborn son Baldur. Unfortunately, she forgets to ask the mistletoe plant to make this promise.
  • The Norse God Loki takes advantage of Frigga’s oversight and decides to play a cruel trick. He creates a mistletoe dart and puts it in Baldur’s brother Hodor’s hand.
  • Loki then offers to teach Hodor how to shoot darts and guides his hand, directing the mistletoe dart right into Baldur’s heart, killing him.
  • Frigga’s mourning moves the mistletoe plant to bear milky white berries from her tears, and the sorrow of Baldur’s death introduces winter to the earth.
  • In time, other Norse Gods feel sorry for Frigga and bring Baldur back to life. Frigga is so happy that she decrees mistletoe should now bring love into the world rather than death, and that any two people passing under this plant should kiss to celebrate Baldur’s restored life.

Early English Traditions For Mistletoe

By the 18th century in England, this ancient association between mistletoe and kissing found its way into English Christmas celebrations:

  • During Christmas time in some areas, a young woman could not refuse a kiss if she was standing under mistletoe. If she did refuse, she couldn’t expect to marry until after the next year.
  • In other English regions, however, it was believed that anyone who kissed under the mistletoe would be cursed and never be able to marry, unless the mistletoe was burned on the twelfth night.
  • Another variation of the mistletoe tradition, still practiced today in some parts of England is to hang mistletoe in farmhouses and kitchens. Each time a man kisses a woman under the mistletoe, he plucks a berry. Once all the berries are gone, the kissing is over.

With its rich history and tradition, mistletoe is much more interesting than many people realize. Still, the opportunity to express love and affection at holiday celebrations is something everyone can understand and relate to.

Last Updated: December 3, 2012
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About Roberta Pescow Roberta Pescow holds a bachelor's degree in communications from City University of New York, Queens College and is a freelance writer and editor in the NJ area. The author of "A Life In The Service" and "A Monster's Tears," she enjoys writing informative articles, personal essays, fiction and music.  Roberta is a proud mother of two. Her other interests include fitness, photography, sculpture and meditation. She is a voracious reader and holds a 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do. Roberta enjoys decorating her hectic, but happy home and garden in original and affordable ways.  

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