Mistletoe is steeped in ancient legends and myths that are traceable to pre-Christian times. It was thought to be a remarkable and sacred shrub because it seemed to grow from the air and not from the earth.
Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) derives its name from the Old English mistletan, “Mistel" for "dung," and "tan" for "twig" meaning bird droppings on a branch. It was thought that birds would eat the berries, and leave the dung on the branches where they would embed in tree branches and grow as a host plant. Considered a parasite, Mistletoe will grow in any tree but is known to grow wild in apple and oak trees. In the olden days it was harvested five days after the New Moon following the winter solstice. Cut with a golden sickle, the branches were not allowed to touch the ground. It was used to hang over doors to announce the arrival of a new year and to protect from thunder and lightening.
Over time its folklore has grown to include the belief that the oak mistletoe could extinguish fire, that it held the soul of the host tree and placed in a baby's cradle would protect the child from faeries.
The European mistletoe, Viscum album, viscum translates to sticky which is the property found in the berry allowing it to adhere to a tree. It is easily propagated by sticking the berries on smooth bark branches or making small holes and inserting them. Mistletoe has been considered undesirable because it feeds off other trees; however it is also thought to have a symbiotic relationship because it provides nutrients when the host is in dormancy. It also provides food for a host of animals and birds who consume its leaves and shoots. In Australia more than 240 species of birds nest in its foliage.
In America, the Christmas mistletoe is of the genus Phoradendron, (translated to tree thief). Its first associations with kissing stem from Greek pagan festivals where it was considered an aphrodisiac and used in primitive marriage ceremonies. Its history as a kissing plant also includes the Norse myth of Baldur, god of summer, son of Frigga goddess of fertility who was killed by a spear made of mistletoe. Brought back to life, the mistletoe was then considered sacred by Frigga who declared any two people passing under it should kiss to celebrate Baldur’s’ resurrection. The spirit of Friggas’ good will lives on as the Christian theme of love triumphing over death.
Kissing under the mistletoe is also cited in an early work by Washington Irving, “Christmas Eve," which tells of the festivities surrounding the Twelve Days of Christmas:
“Here were kept up the old games of hoodman blind, shoe the wild mare, hot cockles, steal the white loaf, bob apple, and snap dragon; the Yule-clog and Christmas candle were regularly burnt, and the mistletoe with its white berries hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids”
Used as good luck charms to ward off evil, its sprigs were also put under the pillows of young girls who thought it would entice dreams of the husband to be.
And so, just what is proper etiquette for kissing under its bough? “The correct mistletoe etiquette is for the man to remove one berry when he kisses a woman. When all the berries are gone, there is no more kissing underneath that plant. Thus, the legend goes, all unmarried persons not kissed under the mistletoe will remain single for another year.”¹ For persons desirous of marriage, getting kissed quickly before the berries are all gone might ensure this proposition.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 18, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)