How did mistletoe come to be associated with Christmas kissing?

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Dec. 14 2011 7:00 AM

What's the Deal With Mistletoe?

How the plant came to be associated with Christmas kissing.

Mistletoe.
Mistletoe

It seems like mistletoe has been livening up otherwise-lame holiday parties forever. But how did a hemi-parasitic plant that grows on tress become associated with kissing during Christmas season? In an article from 2010 reprinted below, Christopher Beam delved into the relationship between Christmas, mistletoe, and romance.

Researchers named a new species of mistletoe from Mozambique this year, so holiday partiers can now hang out under the Helixanthera schizocalyx, looking for love. How did mistletoe become synonymous with Christmas kissing?

The Druids started it. Mistletoe, a hemi-parasitic plant that grows on trees, has long been considered a cure-all with special properties: In the Aeneid, the hero brings a bough thought to be mistletoe—a symbol of vitality that remains green even in winter—to the underworld. But the earliest mention of mistletoe's romantic powers was by Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder, who scoffed at the Druids of the 1st Century A.D. for believing that "mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart fecundity to all animals that are barren." That romantic association was later expanded by the Norse myth about Baldur and his mother, Frigga, the goddess of love and marriage. According to legend, Frigga got all the plants and animals of the Earth to promise not to harm her son—except mistletoe. Loki, the god of mischief, took that opportunity to kill Baldur with a spear made of mistletoe. In some versions of the tale, Frigga's tears then turned into mistletoe berries, which brought Baldur back to life, prompting Frigga to declare mistletoe a symbol of love.

It wasn't until the 18th or 19th centuries, though, that the British started hanging mistletoe as part of Christmas celebrations. In an 1820 story, Washington Irving described Christmas decorations that included "the mistletoe, with its white berries, hung up, to the imminent peril of all the pretty housemaids." In The Pickwick Papers(1836), Charles Dickens paints a scene of mass sub-mistletoe kissing: Young women "screamed and struggled, and ran into corners, and did everything but leave the room, until … they all at once found it useless to resist any longer and submitted to be kissed with a good grace." In this context, mistletoe was supposed to bring luck to two people who kissed underneath it and bad luck to those who didn't. Some say proper etiquette is to pick a berry off for every kiss and stop when all the berries are gone. Just don't eat them: Some species of mistletoe are poisonous.

Mistletoe's reputation as a healing plant persists in the world of herbal remedies, but there's little clinical evidence that it can cure disease. Actress Suzanne Somers famously opted to treat her breast cancer with mistletoe extract instead of chemotherapy. Extract has even been shown to kill cancer cells in the lab. But the American Cancer Institute has concluded, "There is no evidence that mistletoe's effects on the immune system help the body fight cancer."

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.