What’s Up With the Holiday Tradition of Kissing Under the Mistletoe?

Get answers to the questions you've always had about this holiday tradition.

mistletoemarilyn barbone/Shutterstock

Christmas and plants just naturally go together. There’s the ubiquitous Christmas tree—an evergreen, of course—the traditional pairing of holly and ivy in wreaths, and an old practice of hanging mistletoe—then stealing a kiss from the object of your affection if they’re found standing beneath the plant.

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While ancient Greeks and Romans considered mistletoe a remedy for a number of different maladies, mistletoe’s romantic connections likely started with the Celtic Druids of the first century A.D. According to the History Channel, the Druids viewed mistletoe as a sacred symbol of vivacity and fertility—associations that continued through the Middle Ages.

Eventually, a new tradition caught on in Victorian England: hanging mistletoe in the house and kissing whomever you met under it. Refusing the kiss was seen as bad luck. Another tradition took it a step further: you could have one kiss for every translucent white berry you plucked from a female sprig of mistletoe. When the berries were gone, so were the chances for a kiss.

Mistletoe (Viscum album) is a parasitic plant, meaning it latches onto plants and feeds off of them. You can’t grow mistletoe in the ground like a traditional plant. Rather, it is found hanging in trees such as apples, oaks, lindens and hawthorns and stealing their water and nutrients. Mistletoe foliage and berries are poisonous but the plant has a history of medicinal use, including treatment for epilepsy and cancer. There are a number of different forms, including a temperate variety in Europe and a desert-dweller in America.

Mistletoe is traditionally hung above a threshold, where unsuspecting guests might be expected to walk. In addition to spawning the “kissing beneath the mistletoe” tradition at Christmas, mistletoe has been used to welcome the New Year and ward off evil.

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Luke Miller
Luke Miller is an award-winning garden editor with 25 years' experience in horticultural communications, including editing a national magazine and creating print and online gardening content for a national retailer. He grew up across the street from a park arboretum and has a lifelong passion for gardening in general and trees in particular. In addition to his journalism degree, he has studied horticulture and is a Master Gardener.