In Depth

Why is kissing under the mistletoe a Christmas tradition?

The coronavirus pandemic will limit yuletide snogging opportunities this year

From Harry Potter’s first kiss to Cliff Richard’s famous Christmas hit, mistletoe is everywhere in popular culture.

But this Christmas tradition of standing under a sprig of the evergreen plant to exchange kisses existed long before it ever appeared in films and songs.

With the Covid-19 pandemic still raging worldwide, 2020 will not be a vintage year for mistletoe smooches. The virus can be spread through saliva, and even if that risk doesn’t put people off, social distancing means that snog-filled parties are off the menu for now.

The mistletoe kiss will endure in the long-term, though. So just how did the tradition begin?

The folklore behind mistletoe

Mistletoe has traditionally been linked to fertility and life, with the plant’s white berries thought to signify semen. Ancient Greeks used mistletoe as a cure for everything from menstrual cramps to spleen disorders, and Romans believed it could help cure epilepsy, ulcers and poisons.

According to folklore, the link to kissing goes back to a Norse legend. Balder, son of the goddess Frigg, was killed by an evil spirit with an arrow crafted out of mistletoe. Balder was a kind and brave chap, who cheered up everyone he met, so Frigg was naturally devastated by her son’s death.

She wept tears of white berries, which brought Balder back to life. So overjoyed was Frigg that she blessed the plant and promised a kiss to all who passed underneath it from that day forward.

Is that the only explanation?

Despite being a popular explanation for the tradition, Mark Forsyth, author of A Christmas Cornucopia: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Yuletide Traditions, has found no evidence that the story of Frigga ends with kissing, or that it is linked to Christmas.

Time magazine reports that the earliest reference to kissing under mistletoe is in a song published in 1784 that includes the lines: “What all the men, Jem, John, and Joe, / Cry, ‘What good-luck has sent ye?’ / And kiss beneath the mistletoe. / The girl not turn’d of twenty.”

How this developed into the tradition we have today is unclear, however history.com notes that it is believed to have “first caught on among servants in England before spreading to the middle classes”.

Under this tradition, men were allowed to “steal a kiss” from any woman standing under the mistletoe, while saying no to a Christmas peck was considered to be bad luck.

Another variation, according to history.com, included instructing the smoochers “to pluck a single berry from the mistletoe with each kiss, and to stop smooching once they were all gone”.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, references to kissing under the mistletoe increase. In his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, published in 1836, Charles Dickens describes women who, finding themselves under the mistletoe, “found it useless to resist any longer, and submitted to be kissed with a good grace.”

Mistletoe in the modern day

These days, “stealing a kiss” under the mistletoe has taken on a different connotation, with The Independent asking whether the Christmas tradition has become an “invitation to sexual harassment?”.

However, others say that the tradition is harmless, with columnist Allison Pearson writing in The Telegraph that mistletoe is the “silliest and flirtiest of yuletide traditions” and a “jolly ice-breaker”.

According to The Grocer, 71% of under-35s have never been kissed under the mistletoe, suggesting that the tradition may be on the decline.

What is mistletoe?

Despite its romantic connotations, mistletoe is a parasitic plant with poisonous berries, that relies on other plants for its survival.

It survives by birds carrying its seeds to other trees. This typically happens when the seed inside the berry is discarded by the bird, as it is covered in a sticky coating, called viscin. As the viscin hardens, the seed becomes attached to the host tree, taking nutrients and water from it and allowing more mistletoe to grow.

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