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More than stolen Christmas kisses: a history of Mistletoe

By Michael Riley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Kissing under the mistletoe has been around for hundreds of years, but the plant itself has quite a history besides being a way to steal a kiss from someone caught underneath its leaves and berries. From an herbal tonic to improve health to the romantic slant the plant ultimately took in the Christmas tradition, let’s take a look at the way the views of mistletoe have progressed over time. 

The word mistletoe comes from a defunct Anglo-Saxon dialect. Birds love the berries on a mistletoe plant, and these ancient Anglo Saxons, having noticed that mistletoe often starts growing from bird droppings on tree branches, used the words for dung “mistel” and twig, “tan” were put together to form “misteltan,” which over time became pronounced “mistletoe.” It is also known as birdlime, all-heal, golden bough, drudenfuss, iscador and devil’s fuge. There are approximately 1,300 varieties of mistletoe around the world. 

While birds love mistletoe berries and bees, butterflies and other insects consume the nectar, humans should not consume mistletoe as it is poisonous. Containing a protein called phoratoxin, eating mistletoe berries won’t kill you, but they will make you quite ill, causing drowsiness, blurred vision, diarrhea, vomiting and seizures.

Mistletoe was used by the ancient Greeks who thought it cured everything from spleen disorders to menstrual cramps. Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder believed that the plant worked as a balm to combat epilepsy, ulcers and poisons. Today, it is still used in some parts of the world to fight colon cancer as an accompaniment to scientific therapies. According to NationalGeographic.com, it has been used this way since the 1920s, and it is prescribed by doctors in Europe. At John Hopkins’ School of Medicine, as of 2015, doctors were doing the first rigorous I.V. test of mistletoe’s effects on American cancer patients. 

Mistletoe, the plant, is actually a parasite, or more accurately a hemi-parasite. That means that they get some of their energy through sunlight by photosynthesis and the rest of their energy through their host plant or tree, by way of a connective appendage called a haustorium, through which it gets water and nutrients from its host. While they can thrive on hosts as disparate as pine trees to cacti, the mistletoe plants we associate with Christmas usually attach themselves to large deciduous trees like oaks. 

The romantic overtones associated with Mistletoe began with the Celtic Druids of the 1st century A.D.  They administered mistletoe to humans and animals alike to restore their fertility. They viewed it as a sacred symbol of liveliness and high spiritedness, because it blossomed and stayed green even in the wintertime, and it didn’t grow from roots in the ground. When they found it growing on their most sacred tree, the oak, they considered it the soul of the tree. On the sixth night of the new Moon after the winter solstice, the Druid high priest would climb the tree and remove the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and the worshippers would catch it in their robes, as it was bad luck for it to touch the ground. They would also wear charms of mistletoe for good luck and protection from evil, and hang it from their doorways so that only happiness could enter the home. 

Norse mythology tells another facet of mistletoe folklore. When Baldur, the son of the god Odin was haunted by dreams of his own death, his mother Frigg, the goddess of love, secured an oath from all the natural world’s plants and animals that they would not harm him. However, Frigg forgot mistletoe, so the god Loki made a mistletoe arrow and was able to kill the otherwise invincible Baldur. The goddess of death, Hel, subsequently brought Baldur back to life, and overcome with joy, Frigga commanded the mistletoe to produce white berries as a reminder of her tears. In addition, she promised a kiss to anyone who passed beneath it. 

By the 18th century, mistletoe’s association with fertility and vitality had become widely incorporated into Christmas celebrations, having been viewed that way all through the Middle Ages. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe seems to have started among servants in England before gaining popularity with the middle classes. As part of this tradition, men were allowed to steal a kiss from any woman caught under the mistletoe and refusing was considered bad luck. 

The first clear historical reference for stealing kisses under the mistletoe was from the book Sleepy Hollow and The Headless Horseman, written in 1820 by Washington Irving, who wrote “the mistletoe, with its white berries, hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids.” Charles Dickens also mentions kissing under the mistletoe in The Pickwick Papers, published serially in 1836 and 1837. 

There is actually a proper etiquette dating back to ancient times about kissing under the mistletoe. In Decking the Halls: The Folklore and Traditions of Christmas Plants, published in 2000 by Linda Allen, it was said that the gentleman should pluck a berry from the mistletoe plant while kissing a lady on the cheek. One kiss was allowed for each berry plucked. However, most people just steal a kiss under it, and never touch the berries. 

So, this Christmas season, go out and get some mistletoe, hang it up in a doorway in your home or apartment, and “steal” a kiss (with the other person’s permission of course) while the festive sounds of the Burl Ives song Holly Jolly Christmas play in the background;

“Oh, ho, the mistletoe, hung where you can see. Somebody waits for you, kiss her once for me.”

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