Mistletoe is a hemiparasitic plant, meaning it is the kind of plant that attaches itself to a tree or shrub with its roots and absorbs its nutrients from its host. There are different varieties of mistletoe around the world, and a heavy infestation can kill the host. Mistletoe can be found growing on its own, but that isn’t common. The European mistletoe is a green shrub, with yellow flowers, and white berries that are poisonous. The North American mistletoe grows along the east coast, from New Jersey to Florida, it has green, oval-shaped leaves with white flowers, its berries can be red, orange, yellow or white, which are poisonous. Both of these types of mistletoe are commercially harvested for Christmas decorations.
So if mistletoe is a parasitic plant with poisonous berries, why do we carry the tradition of kissing beneath it?
Kissing under the mistletoe was first associated with the Greeks when they celebrated the festival of Saturnalia. Since the mistletoe was believed to bestow fertility, and the dung of it was said to have “life-giving” power, people would kiss beneath them. The Greeks believed mistletoe held mystical powers, likely due to its sudden appearance in trees, which was done by birds distributing the seeds from their beaks or droppings. Mistletoe also remains green throughout the winter, making it a wonder to the ancients, since its roots were not in the ground. Mistletoe was said to bestow life and fertility, used as a protection against poisons, and also used as an aphrodisiac. The practice of kissing beneath the mistletoe eventually extended to Greek wedding ceremonies.
Mistletoe was considered sacred in pre-Christian Europe. Ancient Celts and Germans used the rare oak mistletoe as a ceremonial plant. Using mistletoe to decorate at Christmas is a custom carried over from the ancient Celtic Druids, who welcomed the New Year by bringing branches of mistletoe indoors. In the Middle Ages, these branches were also hung from the ceiling to ward off evil spirits. In Europe, they were hung over doorways to prevent the entrance of witches.
In Scandinavia, the mistletoe represents peace, so feuding married couples would kiss beneath the mistletoe. Norse myth claims if you came upon your enemy in the woods, and found yourself standing under mistletoe, a truce would be declared and weapons disengaged until the next day. Thus, kissing beneath the mistletoe became a sign of goodwill and friendship.
There is even said to be proper etiquette for kissing under the mistletoe. Men can only kiss the woman or girl on the cheek, once the kiss is complete, he removes a berry from the plant. When the berries are gone, the kissing ends. So make sure your mistletoe has lots of berries, because kissing is known to reduce stress.
Remember, the BERRIES of all mistletoe are TOXIC. Keep them away from children, pets, and people who don’t know better.