Mistletoe has been written about in stories and myths for hundreds of years. Stand beneath it with someone around Christmas and you’re supposed to kiss each other, sure, but what exactly is mistletoe and how did it come to have romantic associations?
There’s no single explanation for why people kiss under the mistletoe around Christmas. But the plant’s connotations with romance goes all the way back to Norse mythology. Many ancient groups associated mistletoe with fertility and vivacity, and some considered it an aphrodisiac. But kissing beneath the mistletoe only became common among British servants in the 18th century. The practice has hung around ever since, and now if you refuse a kiss it’s considered bad luck. Worse, if a girl refused a kiss whilst standing under mistletoe during Victorian times, it was said that she wouldn’t receive any marriage proposals the following year.
Kissing under the mistletoe is a strange tradition when you consider that it is a poisonous plant – why bring it into homes at all? And no surprise when you consider it’s a tough plant to look after at the best of times – you can’t grow it in a pot or in the ground on its own, and the most common trees on which it grows in the UK, for example, are apple trees, though it can grow on others too. It is also what’s called a parasitic plant, which means it’s a bit of a scourge that latches on to trees and feeds off of them. Hence the scientific name for American mistletoe: “thief of the tree”.
Mistletoe etiquette, at least, is simple. If you believe in the tradition, men can only kiss a woman on the cheek and, when he does so, he removes one berry from the mistletoe sprig – because once all the beautiful, translucent white berries are gone, the rest of the plant loses all of its romantic power. So if you put up your own mistletoe this year, make sure it has plenty of berries on it.