The History Of Mistletoe Explained

Imagine being stuck under a parasitic plant with someone, and the only way out is to kiss them. It honestly sounds like a nightmare, and yet it's a Christmas tradition some people somehow enjoy – mistletoe, the hemiparasitic plant in question, is an essential part of the holiday. (Hemiparasitic means it's only a parasite to roots and other plants.) Its origins, though, are not the most Christmassy of history.

Slate explained mistletoe has long been used for its medicinal properties. Druids believed mistletoe cures a lot of things, and it's mentioned in the Greek epic The Aeneid, written around 20 BCE, as something the hero brings with him to the underworld. The druids also thought of mistletoe as a kind of aphrodisiac, since its seeds are sticky. Apparently, they told couples to hang it on their door. The more romantic aspects of mistletoe, though, were more closely associated with Norse mythology.

Smithsonian Magazine wrote that Baldur, the grandson of the Norse god Thor, was sure all plants and animals wanted to kill him because, of course, a plant wants to hurt a person. His mother, Frigga, asked every living thing to promise not to harm her son. Most agreed, except the mistletoe. The god of mischief, Loki, then shot Baldur in the chest with an arrow made from the plant. Frigga cried, and her tears became mistletoe berries. That's when Baldur was brought back to life, and people kiss underneath the plant to celebrate love.

The Victorians had rules about the kissing

But how did it become a Christmas thing instead of, say, a Valentine's Day tradition? No one is really sure how it transformed into a Christmas practice, though it might have something to do with the holiday as a time of celebration with those you love. Druids also tended to collect the plant during the winter solstice, described LiveScience.

People kissing under the mistletoe began in ancient times, when Greeks hung it during weddings to symbolize peace and people coming together. During the Victorian era, the tradition started to creep into Christmas. First gaining popularity with servants, according to History, a man was allowed to steal kisses from a woman only while standing under the plant. Refusing was considered bad luck, but if you kissed under the mistletoe, you'd be blessed.

And men who wanted to steal a kiss? They could do so until all the berries on the sprig were gone. After a kiss, pick off a berry. Charles Dickens, everyone's favorite Christmas author, described a scene in The Pickwick Papers where girls were forced by mistletoe to be kissed.

The idea that people have to kiss underneath a hemiparasitic plant or face dire consequences sounds like a nightmare, but, hey, people also think the song "Baby It's Cold Outside" is sweet, so whatever floats your boat. Just make sure that if you do kiss someone under the mistletoe, don't eat the berries you pick off. They're quite poisonous.