Oh, ho, the mistletoe,
Hung where you can see.
Somebody waits for you;
Kiss her once for me!
From bringing trees inside to banging pots and pans at the turn of the New Year, the holiday season is full of colorful, storied, and sometimes strange, traditions. Kissing under the mistletoe is one of these.
Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on, and attaches to, the branches of a tree or shrub. As it grows, it burrows into its host, and draws nutrients from the tree. To a healthy tree, mistletoe’s thievery is generally harmless. In fact, some describe the relationship between mistletoe plants and their host trees as somewhat symbiotic, because birds, attracted to a tree by mistletoe’s evergreen leaves, often spread the host tree’s seeds in winter, increasing the overall tree population.
Mistletoe features small, smooth, oval leaves paired up along a woody stem, with waxy white berries in clusters of up to six or ten, depending on the species. An important food source for many bird species, mistletoe can be mildly toxic to humans, causing diarrhea and gastrointestinal discomfort.
Decorating with mistletoe during winter is an ancient tradition, dating to the time before Christianity spread through Europe, when it was viewed as a symbol of fertility. The plant’s connection to the winter solstice probably originates in Norse mythology.
According to legend, Baldur, the god of light, began to have terrible nightmares that he would soon be killed. To ease his mind, Baldur’s mother, Frigga, undertook a journey to make everything in heaven or Earth — plants, animals, weapons, and so on — swear an oath not to harm Baldur. Because her son was so universally loved, everything she asked gladly made this promise. Unfortunately, the goddess overlooked the humble mistletoe. Realizing Frigga’s mistake, Loki, the god of mischief and fire, fashioned a spear of mistletoe and tricked Baldur’s blind twin brother, Hodur, into throwing it at the light god. The mistletoe pierced Baldur’s heart, killing him and bringing darkness to the world. Being magical, the gods were eventually able to resurrect Baldur. To celebrate his return, Frigga declared that mistletoe would be a symbol of love, and commanded gods and humans to kiss beneath its leaves in memory of her son. Some versions of the myth, though, say Loki foiled the gods’ attempt to restore Baldur to life. In this case, it is prophesied that the light god will return at Ragnarok, the destruction and rebirth of the world, and the mistletoe kiss is a foretaste of the joy that is yet to come.
Like many plants associated with rebirth myths, mistletoe began to be associated with fertility. People once placed it above babies’ cradles to protect them from evil or mischievous spirits, and young girls placed it under their pillows to dream of their future husbands.
According to some versions of the kissing lore, the proper etiquette for kissing under mistletoe requires a man to remove one berry when he kisses a woman. Once all of the berries are gone, it becomes bad luck to kiss beneath that particular sprig.
To cultivate mistletoe, simply squeeze the thick, sticky pulp out of several mistletoe berries and rub the seeds, spaced about an inch apart, on a young, thin tree branch. Unless they are eaten by birds, the seeds should grow on their own, without your help, taking nutrients from the host tree.