When did mistletoe become a Christmas tradition? And why do we kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas? Like many traditions, the origin story of mistletoe at Christmas has many influences.
In the wild, mistletoe grows as a parasite, feeding off its host tree. But within Christmas tradition and pagan folklore, it’s a symbol of love and romance—and of course, kissing.
So, how did a parasitic plant become associated with love and affection at Christmastime?
Like most traditions, the origin story of mistletoe at Christmas has many influences.
What’s In a Name? What ‘Mistletoe’ Means
As we alluded to in the opening, mistletoe is actually a parasitic plant. According to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), there are 1,300 species of mistletoe in the world—20 of which are actually endangered worldwide.
“When a mistletoe seed lands on a suitable host, it sends out roots that penetrate the tree and draw on its nutrients and water,” NWF explains. “Mistletoes also can produce energy through photosynthesis in their green leaves.”
Now for the funny part: Mistletoe gets its name from the Anglo-Saxon words “mistle” and “tan,” which mean “dung” and “twig,” respectively. The modern translation? “Poop on a stick.” Apparently, Anglo-Saxons noticed that mistletoe grew where birds left their droppings.
Mistletoe: A Centuries-Old Symbol of Health & Love
Mistletoe has been a symbolic herb for centuries. In fact, according to History.com, several cultures “prized” mistletoe for its alleged healing properties.
“The Greeks were known to use it as a cure for everything from menstrual cramps to spleen disorders, and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder noted it could be used as a balm against epilepsy, ulcers and poisons,” History.com explains.
When it comes to mistletoe’s romantic associations, the Celtic Druids and the Norse are credited with that.
For the Druids, mistletoe’s ability to bloom during winter made it a symbol of vivacity, History.com says. As a result, they often used the plant on animals and humans in hopes of boosting or restoring fertility.
As for the Norse, mistletoe plays an important role in ancient mythology, which helps explain why mistletoe is associated with kissing.
“As the story goes, when the god Odin’s son Baldur was prophesied to die, his mother Frigg, the goddess of love, went to all the animals and plants of the natural world to secure an oath that they would not harm him,” History.com details. “But Frigg neglected to consult with the unassuming mistletoe, so the scheming god Loki made an arrow from the plant and saw that it was used to kill the otherwise invincible Baldur.”
Another version claims the gods were able to bring Baldur back from the dead with mistletoe. Elated by the return of her son, Frigg “declared mistletoe a symbol of love and vowed to plant a kiss on all those who passed beneath it.”
How Mistletoe Became a Christmas Tradition
How mistletoe made the leap from symbol of love and vitality to “Kiss-mas” tradition isn’t completely clear.
As History.com tells us, by the 18th century kissing under the mistletoe had become widely embedded in Christmas tradition, and appears to have started among servants in England and spread to other classes from there.
To refuse a kiss was bad luck, as long as berries were still left on the mistletoe. As biologist Rob Dunn describes an article in Smithsonian Magazine:
“As Washington Irving wrote in the 1800s, ‘young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under [mistletoe], plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.’”
Pucker Up for Tradition
While the meaning behind the mistletoe name is less than savory, it’s history in ancient folklore and Christmas tradition is rooted in luck, love, and romance. So, pucker up in the name of tradition this Christmas.
Ready for another history lesson? Learn about the history of Christmas stockings.