×
Back left
Back right

Where Did Kissing Under Mistletoe Come From?

Wow your friends with mistletoe's weird, fascinating history!

Dec 18, 2019

We all have our favorite Christmas traditions.  Is mistletoe one of yours?  Maybe it depends on who’s standing under it with you!  Ever wonder when people started smooching under mistletoe?  And why is it associated with Christmas?  Like many old Christmas traditions, this one has an odd and little-known beginning!

Where did the "kissing plant" come from?  The answer may surprise you.Where did the "kissing plant" come from? The answer may surprise you.

Mistletoe History

  • According to tradition, any guy can kiss a gal that happens to be standing with him under the mistletoe, and vice versa.  If the other refuses, bad luck falls on that person (Bet you didn’t know that!).

The Christmas mistletoe tradition began in 18th century England.The Christmas mistletoe tradition began in 18th century England.
  • Mistletoe is a parasite.  It looks pretty with its little white berries and delicate leaves, but this tree-dwelling plant germinates in bird poop, attaches itself to tree branches and grows by sucking water and nutrients from the tree it’s living on (Ew!).

A tree with mistletoe growing on it.  As a parasite, it may kill the tree.  A tree with mistletoe growing on it. As a parasite, it may kill the tree.
  • The name “mistletoe” literally means “poop on a stick.”  It comes from the Anglo-Saxon words “mistel” meaning dung, and “tan,” meaning stick.

A pretty plant with a not-so-pretty name!A pretty plant with a not-so-pretty name!
  • Way back in the 1st century AD, the Celts thought mistletoe had magical properties.  The Celts were an ancient civilization that lived in what is now Ireland and Scotland.  Mistletoe was a symbol of fertility to them because it always stayed green and bloomed in the trees during dark, freezing winters.  It was supposed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck.  (Can you guess what other holiday began with the Celts?)

The Celts cut mistletoe from trees only during certain phases of the moon.The Celts cut mistletoe from trees only during certain phases of the moon.
  • Mistletoe was also used by Norse culture as a symbol of peace and friendship.  The Norse people lived in Scandinavia and northern Europe in the early centuries.  Kissing under mistletoe started there, with the story of a goddess who decreed that mistletoe should be placed overhead and anyone under it should receive a kiss in memory of her son.

People have been kissing under mistletoe since the early centuries.  It had nothing to do with Christmas!People have been kissing under mistletoe since the early centuries. It had nothing to do with Christmas!
  • Fast-forward to medieval England.  People thought mistletoe kept spirits away during the month of December.  They used the plant in religious ceremonies and burnt it when the Christmas holiday ended.
  •  English servants in the 1700’s began using it as a Christmas decoration, and men would try to steal a kiss from women caught standing under it.  Each time a kiss was stolen, a berry would be picked off the hanging sprig.  When no more berries remained, the kissing ended.  Soon the “kissing ball” practice spread to everyone all over the world, becoming a universal tradition.

The Christmas mistletoe tradition began among the English lower class, and soon spread to everyone.The Christmas mistletoe tradition began among the English lower class, and soon spread to everyone.
  • According to another custom, you steal a mistletoe sprig from your local church's decorations, bring it home, put it under your pillow, and dream about your crush.  In the morning, if the plant burned slowly after throwing it into the fire, you could count on marrying the person.  If it cracked, you were out of luck.

European superstition told that mistletoe had the power to affect who you would marry.European superstition told that mistletoe had the power to affect who you would marry.
  • In modern England, superstition says that any couple that kisses under the mistletoe at Christmastime will be married by the following Christmas. 

Other Cool Facts

  • In America, we often use artificial mistletoe sprigs or balls for decoration, but many Europeans have the live plant in their homes during the holiday. 

The American mistletoe plantThe American mistletoe plant
  • There are about 1,300 species of mistletoe around the world.  Twenty of these species are endangered.

European mistletoe plantEuropean mistletoe plant
  • American mistletoe, which grows in woody forests, looks slightly different from European mistletoe.  You may be able to find European mistletoe in a small part of California—It migrated here on apple trees.

Many past civilizations used mistletoe as medicine, and Europeans today use it to treat cancer.Many past civilizations used mistletoe as medicine, and Europeans today use it to treat cancer.
  • Mistletoe is toxic to people and pets—but people in ancient Greece and Rome used it to treat all types of ailments! 

Don't use live mistletoe around your pets.  It may make them sick if ingested!Don't use live mistletoe around your pets. It may make them sick if ingested!
  • Even though mistletoe can kill the tree it’s feeding from, wildlife loves it.  Bees use it for pollen, butterflies lay their eggs on it, and many birds depend on it for food and nesting materials. 

Birds rely on mistletoe for food.Birds rely on mistletoe for food.
Share With Kidzworld

Cool, or creepy?  Now that you know where mistletoe comes from, has your opinion of it changed?  Tell Kidzworld!