The fascinating history of the mistletoe tradition and the truth about the plant under which we steal kisses: it actually sucks the life out of trees.
Mistletoe, the bellwether of romantic holiday traditions, is actually semiparasitic plant. That’s right, the plant under which we are excited to steal kisses is actually known among horticultural circles for latching onto a tree and sucking all the life out of it. That’s not how it became synonymous with festive romance, though.
There are two distinct types of mistletoe: one, which hangs over millions of doorways this time of year, is the slightly parasitic version that grows on tree branches and is North American in origin. The other is European and is actually a poisonous shrubbery.
The magic of mistletoe as a plant predates any of its associations with yuletide smooching. In European folklore mistletoe was rather a hot commodity, thought to bring protection from harm, inspire fertility and have aphrodisiac qualities.
Mistletoe as we know and love it today evolved from sandalwood, a plant that was able to thrive by growing so strong and tall that it killed all surrounding vegetation by throwing literal shade.
So in a way, mistletoe’s penchant to put down its roots in the branches of much stronger and larger trees is a throwback to its sandalwood ancestors. It also developed a rugged reputation because, unlike most plants familiar to the Norse folk, mistletoe could and often did “bloom” in the winter months, making it a symbol of vitality.
As far as the greenery’s transition from parasite to party decor, mistletoe adorned hallways for many years before people got the idea to start kissing beneath it. That idea came much later, and there are actually quite a few competing theories about just where the idea originated.
One fact that is agreed upon, however, is that the plant’s reputation for being a harbinger of fertility and vivacity is at least partially responsible for the leap to encouraging public displays of affection. Mistletoe began appearing routinely as a part of marriage ceremonies in Ancient Greece, and later became a part of the Greek festivities of Saturnalia.
In the late Victorian era, domestic servants became quite partial to the tradition of kissing underneath the mistletoe, and the custom eventually spread up the stairs to their upper-class employers.
Like most elements of this period in history, however, it was not all fun and games: a young woman’s refusal to be kissed, should she be caught beneath a sprig, enforced that she could not expect any marriage proposals in the coming year. This would have been quite a devastating prospect for a young woman of the era, and thus a friendly kiss was rarely refused.
Some accounts say, too, that for every kiss a berry must be plucked from the branch. Once the berries were all gone, no more kissing was to occur. And, since mistletoe was often hung alongside holly – a similar plant – there was even a little rhyme to keep the eager young suitors in line: “Berries of white, kissing’s alright. Berries of red get you hit on the head.”
Of course, since propriety was of utmost importance during these times, it should be pointed out that kissing meant on the cheek, not the mouth. It also bears mentioning that if one has plucked a berry from the twig, it should not be eaten. The berries are poisonous.
Today, the tradition is far more light-hearted. An offshoot of mistletoe is apt to be spotted at a holiday party through Christmas well on to New Year’s Eve. Of course, since New Year’s Eve has its own kissing tradition, bringing a vine of toxic mistletoe to the party might be a little overkill.