Kissing Under the Mistletoe

From Celts to Kisses, This Plant Has a Fascinating History

Image of mistletoe plant with berries on a tree.
Money may not grow on trees, but mistletoe does. David Beaulieu

We are all familiar with at least a portion of the mysterious mistletoe's story: namely, that a lot of kissing under the mistletoe has been going on for ages. Few, however, realize that this plant's botanical story earns it the classification of "parasite." Fewer still know the convoluted history behind the tradition of smooching beneath a sprig of the plant. And its literary history is a forgotten footnote for all but the most scholarly.

Let's begin with a little taste of the latter:

"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."

That is what Washington Irving wrote in Christmas Eve (from Irving's The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, 1820). Irving relates the typical festivities surrounding the Twelve Days of Christmas, including kissing under the mistletoe. He continues his Christmas passage with a footnote:

The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses 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.

We moderns have conveniently forgotten the part about plucking the berries (which, incidentally, are poisonous), and then desisting from kissing under the mistletoe when the berries run out.

Along with the holly, laurel, rosemary, yews, boxwood bushes and, of course, the Christmas tree, mistletoe is an evergreen displayed during the Christmas season and symbolic of the eventual rebirth of vegetation that will occur in spring. But perhaps more than any other of the Christmas evergreens, it is a plant of which we are conscious only during the holidays.

One day we're kissing under the mistletoe, and the next day we've forgotten all about it (the plant, that is, not the kisses).

When the Christmas decorations come down, mistletoe fades from our minds for another year, receding into the mists of mythology and rituals. Particularly in regions where the plant is not native (or is rare), most people do not even realize that mistletoe does not grow on the ground, but rather on trees as a parasitic shrub. That's right: as unromantic as it sounds, kissing under the mistletoe means embracing under a parasite.

The variety common in Europe was imbued with religious significance by its ancient inhabitants. We find the source of "kissing under the mistletoe" in Celtic rituals and Norse mythology. In Gaul, the land of the Celts, for instance, the Druids considered it a sacred plant. It was believed to have medicinal qualities and mysterious supernatural powers. The following reflections from the Roman natural historian, Pliny the Elder is part of a longer Latin passage on the subject, dealing with a Druidic religious ritual:

Here we must mention the reverence felt for this plant by the Gauls. The Druids -- for thusly are their priests named -- hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, as long as that tree be an oak.... Mistletoe is very rarely encountered; but when they do find some, they gather it, in a solemn ritual....

After preparing for a sacrifice and a feast under the oak, they hail the mistletoe as a cure-all and bring two white bulls there, whose horns have never been bound before. A priest dressed in a white robe climbs the oak and, with a golden sickle, cuts the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then they sacrifice the victims, begging the god, who gave them the mistletoe as a gift, to make it propitious for them. They believe that a potion prepared from mistletoe will make sterile animals fertile, and that the plant is an antidote for any poison. Such is the supernatural power with which peoples often invest even the most trifling things (Natural History, XVI, 249-251; translation by David Beaulieu).

Norse Myths and the History of Mistletoe

But what of the history of mistletoe pertaining to kissing under it? Tracing the history of all this caressing means going back to ancient Scandinavia -- to custom and the Norse myths. The traditional custom, according to Dr. Leonard Perry, was that if, while out in the woods, you happened to find yourself standing under this plant upon encountering a foe, you both had to lay down your arms until the following day.

This ancient Scandinavian custom led to the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. But the tradition went hand-in-hand with one of the Norse myths, namely, the myth of Baldur. The story of Baldur's death is one of the most fascinating Norse myths for those interested in the "kissing" plant, because it is central to the history of mistletoe.

Baldur's mother was the Norse goddess, Frigga. When Baldur was born, Frigga made each and every plant, animal and inanimate object promise not to harm Baldur. But Frigga overlooked the mistletoe plant -- and the mischievous god of the Norse myths, Loki, took advantage of this oversight. Ever the prankster, Loki tricked one of the other gods into killing Baldur with a spear made from mistletoe. Hermódr the Bold was appointed to ride to Hel in an attempt to bring Baldur back. Hel's condition for returning Baldur was that absolutely every last thing in the world, living and dead, had to weep for Baldur. Failing that, he would remain with Hel. When this condition was put to the test, all wept except for a certain giantess, believed to be Loki in disguise. Baldur's resurrection was thus thwarted.

The ancient source for the foregoing Norse myth is the Prose Edda. But variations on the story (or addenda to the story) about Baldur and the mistletoe have come down to us, too -- although I cannot supply the ancient sources for all of them. For example, some relate it was agreed, after the death of Baldur, that from then on mistletoe would bring love rather than death into the world, and that any two people passing under mistletoe would exchange a kiss in memory of Baldur. Others add that the tears Frigga shed over the slain Baldur became the mistletoe berries.

It goes without saying that, if we were to peel off the layers of custom and myth surrounding "kissing under the mistletoe" in an attempt to discover its true history, we would find ourselves in the midst of ancient erotica. Mistletoe has long been regarded as an aphrodisiac and fertility herb. It may also possess the ability to cause an abortion, which would help explain its association with uninhibited sexuality.

The unusual botanical history of mistletoe goes a long way towards explaining the awe in which it was held by ancient peoples, as reflected in the Norse myth. For in spite of not being rooted in the soil, mistletoe remained green throughout the winter, while the trees upon which it grew and upon which it fed did not (the European mistletoe often grows on apple trees; more rarely on oaks). The fascination this must have exerted over pre-scientific peoples is understandable.

Most types of mistletoe are classified as hemiparasitical (i.e., partial parasites). They are not full parasites, since the plants are capable of photosynthesis. But these mistletoe plants are parasitic in the sense that they send a special kind of root system (called "haustoria") down into their hosts, the trees upon which they grow, in order to extract nutrients from the trees.

Various types of mistletoe grow all over world, so it is difficult to generalize about the plant. Mistletoe is in the Loranthaceae family. The flowers of tropical mistletoes can be much larger and more colorful than the small yellow flowers (later yielding whitish-yellow berries) that Westerners associate with the plant. The mistletoe common in Europe is classified as Viscum album, while its American counterpart is Phoradendron flavescens.

The U.S. is also home to a dwarf mistletoe, called Arceuthobium pusillum. The latter is not something that you would want growing on your landscape, since it does do harm to the trees that it uses as hosts. Even the hemiparasitical mistletoes are far from beneficial to their hosts. But A. pusillum is fully parasitical, having no leaves of its own. And since there are no leaves to harvest from this plant, dwarf mistletoe is even useless as a Christmas decoration for "kissing under the mistletoe"! Read Steve Nix's article on controlling mistletoe to learn about prevention.

While partyers focus on kissing under the mistletoe, and while botanists and landscapers concentrate on distinguishing partially parasitical mistletoes from the fully parasitical types, the medical profession has begun to investigate the alleged benefits of mistletoe to human health. Actress Suzanne Somers increased public awareness of the research taking place on mistletoe as a possible cure for breast cancer and gave mistletoe history a new twist. Somers opted to treat her breast cancer with Iscador, a drug made from a mistletoe extract. CNN followed up this report with another, however, which was highly skeptical of the effectiveness of mistletoe as a cancer cure for humans.

Origins of the Word, "Mistletoe" and Its Famous Literary Past

We have seen that the origin of kissing under the mistletoe lies in Scandinavian myth. But what about the origin of the name "mistletoe"?

The origin of the word, itself is every bit as complex and obscure as the botany and folklore surrounding the plant. The quest for the word origin leads us on a journey back to Indo-European roots, on a road riddled with superstition.

The word originated from the perception in pre-scientific Europe that mistletoe plants burst forth -- as if by magic -- from the excrement of the "mistel" (or "missel") thrush. According to Sara Williams at the University of Saskatchewan Extension, "It was observed in ancient times that mistletoe would often appear on a branch or twig where birds had left droppings. 'Mistel' is the Anglo-Saxon word for 'dung,' and 'tan' is the word for 'twig'. So, mistletoe means 'dung-on-a-twig'." Not exactly a word origin in keeping with the romantic reputation of mistletoe plants.

While belief in spontaneous generation has long been discredited, the word origin of "mistletoe" is not as fanciful as one might at first think. "By the sixteenth century," says Williams, "botanists had discovered that the mistletoe plant was spread by seeds which had passed through the digestive tract of birds." And folks had known for some time that the berry of mistletoe plants is a favorite treat of the mistel thrush. So while their reasoning was somewhat askew, the old-timers were justified, after all, in naming mistletoe plants after the bird most responsible for spreading it around.

As might be expected from a plant that has held people's fascination for so long, mistletoe plant has also carved out a niche of fame for itself in literary annals. Two of the better-known books of the Western tradition feature a particular mistletoe shrub prominently -- a mistletoe shrub given the pseudonym of "golden bough." And herein lies yet another twist in the tale of this remarkable plant.

In Virgil's Aeneid, perhaps the most famous book in classical Latin literature and one of the most famous poems of all time, the Roman hero, Aeneas, makes use of this "golden bough" at a critical juncture of the book. The "golden bough" was to be found on a special tree in the grove sacred to Diana, at Nemi; a tree containing a mistletoe plant. The prophetess Sibyl instructed Aeneas to pluck this magic bough before attempting his descent into the underworld. Sibyl knew that, with the aid of such magic, Aeneas would be able to undertake the perilous venture with confidence. Two doves guide Aeneas to the grove and alight upon the tree, "from which shone a flickering gleam of gold. As in the woods in the cold winter the mistletoe -- which puts out seed foreign to its tree -- stays green with fresh leaves and twines its yellow fruit about the boles; so the leafy gold seemed upon the shady oak, so this gold rustled in the gentle breeze." (Aeneid VI, 204-209).

The title of Sir James G. Frazer's anthropological classic, "The Golden Bough" (1922), derives from this very scene in Virgil's Aeneid. But just how, you might be asking, can something green like mistletoe plants become associated with the color gold? According to Frazer, mistletoe could become a "golden bough" because when the plants die and wither (even evergreens eventually die, of course), mistletoe plants acquire a golden hue. Fair enough. But once again, botany and folklore most likely must be mingled to arrive at the full explanation.

The perception of goldenness in the dried leaves of mistletoe plants was probably influenced by the fact that, in the folklore of Europe, it was thought that mistletoe plants in some cases are brought to earth when lightning strikes a tree in a blaze of gold. And a fitting arrival it would be, after all, for a plant whose home is half way between the heavens and the earth.

Further Reading

Read up on other plants famously associated with Christmas here:

The Plants of Our Christmas Traditions