Why do we kiss under the mistletoe during the holidays?

Man kissing woman under mistletoe

Maybe we shouldn't look too closely at the holiday tradition of kissing under mistletoe. The truth about mistletoe isn't so nuzzle-inspiring.

The poisonous parasite grows in the branches of trees and shrubs. It chokes its host plant until it's dead. And its innocuous-looking white berries are toxic to humans.

As unromantic as it may sound, when we kiss under the mistletoe, we are making merry beneath a parasite.

So why did we start buying bits of this murderous parasitic vine to decorate our homes during the holidays just to promote a kiss?

In this day and age, any kissing-under-the-mistletoe inclination could be, shall we say, one-sided. This could be why you don't often see a Victorian Kissing Ball or festive sprig of mistletoe at office holiday parties.

Mistletoe history

In Norse mythology, the god Baldr "the Beautiful" was plagued by terrible dreams of his own demise, so his mother made all plants and animals promise never to harm him, according to mistletoe.org.uk. But mistletoe, because it was a parasite, was overlooked. Baldr's enemy, the god Loki, figured this out, made a spear-like weapon out of a branch-like mistletoe and skewered poor Baldr. His mother's tears fell upon the weapon and were transformed into small white berries, legend has it. Baldr was miraculously brought back to life, and his mother vowed that forevermore anyone standing beneath mistletoe will come to no harm but instead receive a token of love: a kiss.

Greek mythology said Aeneas found his way to the "abode of the dead" by plucking a golden bough of mistletoe. It led the way to his deceased father, who showed Aeneas a vision of future Rome. "Among Romans, the plant was viewed as a symbol of peace and friendship. According to legend, enemies who met under mistletoe would lay down their weapons and embrace," says www.altogetherchristmas.com.

Per the writings of Pliny the Elder, the ancient Druids worshipped the mistletoe that grew on their trees.

"Druid priests held the plant sacred and used it in their winter celebrations 200 years before the birth of Christ," states www.altogetherchristmas.com.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Druidic ideas had a rebirth. Mistletoe was believed to ward off evil if brought into the house at Christmas and hung for a full year. Mistletoe's shape was interpreted to look like male genitalia and thus was thought to be a fertility symbol. It was used "as a medicine to encourage fertility, as a charm for young ladies to find husbands, and in our kissing custom," states the website.

In France, mistletoe was given as a good-luck gift for the New Year.

The custom in Victorian times was to remove a berry from the sprig after each kiss and discard the mistletoe once it was bare of berries.

American author Washington Irving wrote in the 1800s, "The mistletoe is still hung up in farmhouses and kitchens at Christmas; and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases."

The kissing kind

European mistletoe, the Viscum species, is considered the "kissing mistletoe." In the U.S., the American species, Phoradendron, is prevalent. Its leaves and branches are differently shaped.

You can buy a packet of mistletoe for $7.49 at Phelan Gardens, 4955 Austin Bluffs Parkway. It comes from New York State, said Alex Crochet, who works in the nursery.

Mistletoe also is farmed as a crop in the U.S.

"If you grow your own, you need to have a suitable host tree to sow seeds onto the tree," he said.

The parasite is evident in Colorado forests.

"It will stunt and reduce the growth of trees, and it can be spread by wind. Once a little bit of mistletoe touches a tree, it can take over," he said. "The reason I think it's so popular is the parasite was so rampant in the 1800s."

Nonetheless, it's a popular item around the holidays.

"It's kind of a niche thing. There are people who like it and come in every year for it. It's not something we have a lot of people coming in asking for," Crochet said.

Mistletoe is also available for purchase at Platte Floral, 1417 E. Platte Ave.

"We have some. We've done kissing balls, which are balls of greens dotted with mistletoe," said Mark Roth, a 45-year employee.

"We probably buy 24 little boxes of it and keep them at the counter, and people pick them up for parties and such. But nationwide there's a shortage of mistletoe and holly right now because of flooding in Texas," Roth said.

He said he's seen it on trees in Black Forest.

"Tree farmers will clip it. It's more of a vine. It'll outgrow what it's growing on and will eventually suffocate the plant," Roth said.

But tradition is tradition.

Bottom line, mistletoe can be your excuse to grab a kiss at Christmastime.

But you don't have to wait until you come upon it to pucker up.


Editor, Pikes Peak Newspapers

Michelle has been editor of the four Pikes Peak Newspapers (Pikes Peak Courier; Tri-Lakes Tribune; Cheyenne Edition; and Woodmen Edition) since June 2019. A Pennsylvania native and Penn State journalism graduate, she joined The Gazette's staff in 2015.

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