The Meaning of Mistletoe

Ask people what mistletoe is all about, and most people will tell you it is a small green plant that is hung from the ceiling or in doorways at Christmas. And of course most folks will also mention the Christmas tradition of kissing someone under the mistletoe. But do you know why mistletoe is a traditional Christmas decoration and how this kissing custom began? If you answered ‘no,’ then keep reading to discover the history behind this small, green Christmas decoration.

Christmas mistletoe plant with berries tied in a bunch with a red bow over oak background.

What Is Mistletoe?

First and foremost, let’s take a look at the scientific side of mistletoe. It is a plant that can produce its own food through photosynthesis. However, mistletoe is actually a partial parasite – meaning it can live off of other organisms. As a ‘hemiparasite’ mistletoe grows on the trunk and branches of trees – typically apple, willow and oak trees.  It soaks up nutrients from the tree in order to grow and thrive. Mistletoe is often spread through bird droppings, and the word itself comes from ‘mistel’ meaning ‘dung’ and ‘tan’ meaning ‘twig’ or ‘stick.’ So the literal translation of the word (‘dung on a stick’) is a far cry from the loving and romantic connotations often conjured up by the plant at Christmas time.

Types of Mistletoe

There are actually two types of mistletoe. The one we most commonly associate with Christmas is native to North America and grows as a hemiparasite on trees up the East Coast of the United States from Florida to New Jersey. The other type of mistletoe hails from Europe and is a shrub with small yellow flowers and white berries. The berries on this type of mistletoe are considered poisonous, and in ancient times it was believed that this kind of mistletoe had mystical powers. The mistletoe that grew on oak trees was considered to be especially magical in ancient Europe, increasing fertility, providing protection against poison and encouraging love to bloom between people.

The Celtic Druids in particular had a strong belief in the powers of mistletoe. They would cut the oak mistletoe from the tree as part of a ritual, believing that those who received it would flourish. The Druids began the use of mistletoe as decoration around the home due to its powers. The Greeks were another group that firmly believed in the magic of mistletoe, and as history progressed, it was hung from ceilings to keep evil spirits and witches away.

These beliefs in the powers of mistletoe were brought to America as immigration took place. Even though these beliefs were associated with the oak mistletoe of Europe, they were conferred upon the American mistletoe very quickly.

Why Do We Kiss Under the Mistletoe?

mistletoe1Kissing under the mistletoe dates back as far as the ancient Greek festival of Saturnalia (which is one of the ancient feasts the contributed to how and why we celebrate Christmas today). In Norse mythology, the plant was seen as a symbol of love and friendship. Given the belief in the plant’s benefits around fertility and love, kissing underneath it was believed to pass these benefits on to those doing the kissing. In other parts of Europe, mistletoe was seen as peace-bringing, with the ability to bring about an end to a quarrel. In some countries, kissing under a ball of mistletoe was even seen as a marriage promise.

As time passed, the tradition slowly transformed and as it stands today a woman standing underneath the mistletoe cannot refuse a kiss – refusal would be bad luck. Receiving a kiss under the mistletoe is a sign of romance or lasting friendship.

A Tradition Worth Following

Whether you believe in the magical powers of mistletoe or not, it cannot be denied that it is a Christmas tradition that is here to stay. With its roots dating back to ancient times, it is a time-tested holiday custom that incites fun and good cheer. Mistletoe is one of the most common Christmas decorations. With its abilities to ward off evil spirits and bring love and good luck to your home, be sure to take part in this Christmas tradition each year. Who wouldn’t want some of the mystical powers that this little plant can offer?