If you celebrate Christmas, it’s likely that at some point this season you’ll find yourself puckering up under a mistletoe branch. What is this tradition of kissing under a plant all about? And does the name have anything to do with human toes?
What is mistletoe?
Mistletoe is a plant that grows parasitically on trees. Mistletoe can cause Witches’-broom, a symptom of a disease that results in clusters of weak shoots, in the host tree. One way to harvest mistletoe is to climb high in the tree to get the clusters; another way is to blast them out with a shotgun. How’s that for festive?
It gets worse.
The word mistletoe comes from the Old English misteltan, with tan meaning “twig” and mistel meaning, well, “mistletoe.” (Middle English speakers apparently confused tan as the plural of ta, “toe,” which is how we ultimately get mistletoe).
As for the roots of mistel, that etymology is obscure, though the word has cousins in Germanic languages. Because mistletoe can be spread through birds’ feces, it is possible that mistel derives from an obsolete, Germanic-derived noun mix, meaning “dung, filth.”
So we can safely say this has nothing whatsoever to do with your toes. That plant you’re kissing under could be a … “dung-twig.”
The dark side of the mistletoe
In Norse mythology, the plant plays a key part in a story with a violent conclusion; the god Balder is killed by his blind brother, Hoor, with, of all things, a mistletoe projectile. Some versions claim he came back to life, and his mother, Frigg, cried tears that turned into mistletoe berries and then declared the plant to be symbolic of love.
It’s a plant that kills in more ways than one. Birdlime, or a juice made from mistletoe berries, is used as an adhesive to trap small birds. Coils of the sticky substance are placed on tree branches. When birds land on them, they get stuck. The birds can then be caught by hand. Though illegal in many parts of the world, some countries still use this method to capture wild birds for eating.
Some species of the plant are toxic to humans too, if ingested.
Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?
Historically, mistletoe represents romance, fertility, and vitality. Because nothing says love like bird feces and poison.
But seriously, the Celtic Druids valued mistletoe for its healing properties and likely were among the first to decorate with it. The berry of the mistletoe ripens in December, and the plant remains green, hence its appeal in wintertime.
The origin of kissing under the mistletoe is shrouded in uncertainty, but it is believed the ancient Greeks celebrated the winter holiday of Kronia—a lively festival and one of the biggest of the year—with mistletoe and may have started the tradition of kissing under it. One of the first descriptions of this tradition comes from a book by Washington Irving published in 1820 (“The mistletoe is still hung up in farmhouses and kitchens at Christmas”).
So pucker up, buttercup … if you’re still in the mood.