What is mistletoe and where does the tradition of kissing under it come from?

By John Brennan, 12/03/2019

What is mistletoe and where does the tradition of kissing under it come from?


Unromantically mistletoe is a parasitic plant, which drives its root system through the bark to live off a host tree. Popular host trees are hawthorn, apple, poplar and lime and the mistletoe can be seen during the winter as clumps of green up in the bare branches of the tree. It takes it's nutrients from the host tree and for that reason can weaken the tree.

Why do we kiss under it?
There appear to be a number of different myths and beliefs that are thought to contribute to this tradition. Its origins reach back as far as the 1st century AD, from the Celtic Druids who associated it with fertility and vivacity to the Norse myth of Frigg, the goddess of love. It stays green throughout the winter whilst it’s host tree does not and the Druids perhaps associated it with fertility for this reason. It has a number of medicinal uses but can also be poisonous if ingested by humans and animals, so don't go adding it to the salad!

In its most current form, though, the custom probably dates back to Victorian servants who decreed that a man could request a kiss from a woman if she was standing under mistletoe (and that to refuse him was bad luck!). For each kiss that was given, a berry would be removed and once they were all gone, no more kisses could be given.
Kissing under mistletoe is a British tradition and has been adopted in America but not by other European countries. In France it is seen as a good luck charm and is often given to friends as a New Year gift to wish them luck in the coming 12 months.

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