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Have you ever wondered why people kiss under mistletoe?

December 20, 2023

Fenelon Falls Town Crier (Athol Hart) and his Consort (Beth Sinyard) kiss under the mistletoe at Maryboro Lodge

Traditionally, a man may kiss any woman standing under mistletoe, or vice versa—and to refuse is bad luck. But where does this tradition come from?

Biologically, mistletoe is not a particularly romantic plant. Mistletoe is native to much of Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa, with the exception of Russia, northern Europe and the countries around the Sahara desert. It is also introduced to British Columbia and California. Another genus grows in the eastern United States, but not extending as far north as Canada. It is European mistletoe, with its white berries, that is part of Christmas rituals. In other parts of the world it has red berries.

Mistletoe is a hemi-parasitic plant, meaning that it grows on another plant (typically trees) and takes nutrients from its host. While mistletoe does produce its own energy from photosynthesis, for some species, this is a small percentage of their total needs. Other species do produce much of their energy from photosynthesis, but in the process can take over the crown of the tree, limiting its ability to perform photosynthesis on its own. These trees can appear odd, like some unknown species, unless the observer realizes that it is a parasitic species, supported by the base of a tree. Mistletoe can be damaging to its host trees, but on the other hand it also can be quite important to the birds that feed on its berries.

Like many plants that reproduce primarily through seeds, birds are its primary means of propagation. The name mistletoe reflects this: ‘Mistle’ is an Anglo Saxon word for dung, and ‘Tan’ means a stick or branch. So mistletoe, or dung branch, is literally a description of how the plant propagates.

Mistletoe berries are not toxic to birds, but they are toxic to humans. But like many toxic natural plants, they have an ancient history of being used medicinally—in many different cultures and on many different continents. The Greeks used it as cure for various ailments, ranging from menstrual cramps to spleen disorders. The Roman naturalist Pliny suggested mistletoe as a treatment for epilepsy, ulcers and poisons.

The Druids (Celtic Priests) used it medicinally, but also gave it symbolic importance. Because it bloomed in winter, they took it as a symbol of vivacity, prescribing it to restore fertility. They also used it in the Ritual of Oak and Mistletoe.

Mistletoe was part of Norse mythology—another people who immigrated to the British Isles. When it was prophesied that the god Odin’s son, Baldur, would die, his mother Frigg, the goddess of love, asked all the animals and plants to vow not to harm him. But she forgot to ask mistletoe, so the shapeshifter Loki made an arrow from the plant that killed Baldur. In one telling of the story, the Norse gods resurrected Baldur, and his mother was delighted. She proclaimed that mistletoe symbolized love, and promised to kiss all those who passed underneath it, as long as it was never again used as a weapon. It remained a symbol of love throughout the middle ages.

By the eighteenth century, mistletoe had become part of British Christmas traditions, and the custom of kissing under mistletoe was popular among servants. By the Victorian era, the British serving classes had fleshed out this tradition to its modern form: that a man may steal a kiss from any woman standing under mistletoe, and that bad luck would befall any woman who refused the kiss. One variation of the ritual required that with each kiss, a berry was to be plucked from the mistletoe, and that the kissing must stop when all the berries had been removed. Over the course of the twentieth century, perceptions of class became less important in the English-speaking world, and today, mistletoe is just one of the many ancient Christmas traditions—that many people enjoy without thinking twice about its origins.

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