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Holiday traditions: what’s so magical about mistletoe?

Mistletoe is special. Every culture that comes across the plant mythologizes it and no wonder. To see mistletoe in England at this time of year, a ball of perfect green life suspended in barren branches, it seems a mysterious, even an other-worldly presence: healthy in the teeth of winter, seemingly without roots or any contact with the ground.

The Druids saw mistletoe as a gift fallen from heaven. Pliny describes them processing to cut it down with a golden sickle. In Norse mythology the spear that kills Balder is made from mistletoe.

Christmas kisses

It’s easy to see how the plant became a midwinter decoration: if you want to bring in some greenery in December you don’t have a lot of choice in England, there’s mistletoe, holly, and ivy. But mistletoe is also about getting a kiss. Just hang a branch somewhere handy and hover. Modern etiquette is a minefield but I’d say that if another adult comes within range you have the right to ask – with a cheeky glance – whether they might be a consenting adult. If you do get a kiss tradition dictates that  you must remove one berry from your sprig.

The custom seems to be restricted to England and the USA. I’ve asked friends from Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Spain, and even from Scotland and Ireland. Bavarians bring mistletoe into their homes and put it in vases but none of my fellow Europeans came across kissing under the mistletoe as children. Their countries know of the custom now, but from Hollywood, and they think of it as an English or American eccentricity.

Many British Christmas traditions, such as Christmas trees, cards, and turkey began in Victorian times. Prince Albert and Charles Dickens deserve much of the credit. But when did mistletoe first smile on a smooch?

It has been linked to Balder’s murder, but there’s no record of a tradition going back to the Nordic Bronze Age. Anyway, why should Loki tricking a blind god into shooting his brother make anyone fancy a kiss?

The earliest reference I can find is from the Lady’s Magazine in 1784:

When all the men, Jem, John, and Joe, cry
‘What good-luck has sent ye?’
And kiss beneath the misletoe
The girl not turn’d of twenty.

It’s important not to read old texts with new eyes. It might be that ‘mistletoe’ here means simply the Christmas decorations, and doesn’t imply some special licence. Things are clearer in the next reference I found. This is from the London newspaper, The Star, on 27 December, 1791

A custom of kissing women under the Mistletoe bush still prevails in many places.

When I saw ‘bush’ here my first thought was that he’d never seen mistletoe in his life. But in 1791, together with the familiar meaning of a little shrub, bush also meant a branch of ivy (the plant sacred to Bacchus) hanging over a pub door, to show where you could get a drink. So perhaps we have a figurative extension of this sense with the suggestion of kisses like wine, antedating The Chiffon’s ‘Sweet Talkin’ Guy’ by nearly two centuries.

The Star makes the mistletoe bush sound like an ancient tradition. For The Gentleman’s Magazine a few months later in April 1792 it’s a novelty:

Great is the degradation of the once sacred Viscum album fallen from all the honours of mystic solemnity, the mistletoe is now annually suspended on the farmer’s bacon-rack to promote Christian festivity, by entitling Roger to salute Margery beneath its studded branches.

Mistletoe’s humble origins

Viscum album is the Latin binomial for mistletoe. Album means white, the colour of the berries, and viscum means sticky for it is stickiness that is the key to mistletoe’s success. When a bird, maybe a mistle thrush (which takes its name from its food), eats a berry the seed passes quickly through the bird with enough of the sticky stuff still sticking to it to keep the seed on the branch until it can germinate and send parasitic roots into the tree.

The English word mistletoe formed when the Old English word tan, meaning twig, was tacked on to the older word for the plant, mistle. It is not clear where mistle comes from, maybe from the German base, mash, which like viscum means sticky. Or it might come from the Germanic root, Mist, meaning excrement, reflecting the way the plant is propagated.

We don’t know either the origin of the word mistletoe, or of the tradition that the plant carries. We can play with our theories, all interesting if none of them romantic, yet still mistletoe remains as magical a feature of the English winter landscape as ever, and an irrefutable excuse for a Christmas snog.

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