What Is Mistletoe and Where Did the Christmas Kissing Tradition Come From?

Mistletoe is the Christmas tradition people are showing no signs of kissing goodbye to, but while the plant is curiously synonymous with this most magical time of the year, very few people likely know the reasons why.

The parasitic plant with the distinctive bright red berries has enjoyed an enduring hold over the holiday season and is a perennial feature in pop culture, from Harry Potter's first kiss to festive songs by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Aretha Franklin.

There are hundreds of species of mistletoe which are commonly found growing on trees and shrubs around the world.

The scientific name for American mistletoe is Phoradendron, which appropriately translates as "tree thief" since mistletoe latches itself to the branches of its host to drain water and nutrients.

As a result of its ubiquity, mistletoe is established in several cultures' customs and mythology, with some of our ancestors reportedly associating mistletoe with medicine and fertility.

Mistletoe has not always been associated with surreptitious kisses, as the ancient Greeks and Roman used the plant to treat menstrual cramps, ulcers as well as epilepsy.

Norse mythology claims the goddess of love, Frigg, secured an oath from all the world's animals and plants they would not harm her son Baldur, whose death was predicted.

However, Frigg forgot mistletoe, which another god used to slay her son Baldur. But after Baldur was revived, his ecstatic mother proclaimed the plant a symbol of love meant to be kissed under.

Mistletoe Christmas Kissing Tradition
The mistletoe Christmas kissing tradition appears to originate from an amalgamation of myths from around the world monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

The Celtic Druids were early to ascribe a tradition to mistletoe, using it in ceremonies several thousand years ago.

In addition to its purported medicinal powers, the Druids believed mistletoe could also protect against nightmares, and even predict the future.

The plant was consequently collected during the summer and winter solstices, making the quasi-religious leaders plausible candidates to be the first to use mistletoe to decorate houses around Christmastime—although this tradition is entirely unrelated to the modern-day Christian holiday.

The strong association of kissing beneath mistletoe started in ancient Greece, during the festival of Saturnalia and later in marriage ceremonies due to its supposed fertility links.

Mistletoe Christmas Kissing Tradition
Mistletoe is the Christmas tradition people are showing no signs of kissing goodbye to nicoletaionescu/Getty Images

Enemies during the Roman era were also thought to reconcile their differences under the mistletoe as they linked the green plant with peace, while also decorating their homes and temples with the plant in midwinter to placate the gods.

In Victorian England, kissing under the mistletoe was taken far seriously than it is today. Were a woman to refuse to lock lips beneath the plant, she could bizarrely not expect to receive any marriage proposals for the next year.

However, people these days approach the mistletoe tradition in a far more lighthearted way.