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, this time of year is full of colorful, storied, and sometimes strange, traditions. Kissing under the mistletoe is one of these.
What Is Mistletoe?
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. It’s best to wash your hands after handling the berries.
Why Do We Kiss Beneath The Mistletoe?
Why we kiss under the plant probably originates in Norse mythology.
The Norse Legend
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.
Superstitions and Lore
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.
Remember, the correct mistletoe etiquette is for the man to remove one berry when he kisses a woman. When all the berries are gone, there is no more kissing underneath that plant—it becomes bad luck to kiss beneath that particular sprig. Throw all berries away immediately and wash your hands—the berries can be poisonous and cause minor skin irritation.
Grow Your Own!
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.