Christmastime has more plants with fascinating legends and symbolism than any other U.S. holiday season, and undoubtedly the kissing ball is best known for its link to love and romance. If it is December, and there is a sprig of mistletoe hung in a doorway, chances are you will find a couple smooching underneath. While decorating the home with mistletoe is a popular Christmas tradition, many people are unaware of its origins and how stolen kisses became a U.S. holiday phenomenon.
There are over 1,300 species of mistletoe globally, but only two are native to America. – the one commonly associated with our kissing tradition is the Phoradendron (Greek for “tree thief”). This white-berried ball-shaped greenery grows in abundance high atop hardwood trees like hickory and oak, along the east coast from New Jersey to Florida and west through Texas. Mistletoe is a hemiparasitic plant which means it can independently carry out photosynthesis, but it also sends out root-like structures that steal water and minerals from the branches of the host tree. When a tree is heavily infested with mistletoe, it can become weak or disfigured to the point that removal of all affected limbs or the entire tree is required.
Historians disagree about why the custom of kissing under the mistletoe began, but there is general consensus on the origin of the custom itself. In Norse mythology, Frigg (goddess of love and fertility) is said to have taken an oath from every living thing growing on or in the earth that they would not become weapons used against her son, Baldur. Frigg failed to acknowledge the unassuming mistletoe growing high above the forest floor. When the trickster god, Loki, realized the plant had been overlooked, he promptly carved a spear from it and shot young Baldur. Frigg raced to her wounded son, revived him, and promised that anyone who passed underneath the mistletoe would not only receive protection from death, but also a kiss.
Eighteenth-century English literature expanded upon the legend by portraying a smooch under the kissing ball as having a magical, romantic appeal. If a couple exchanged a kiss under the mistletoe, it was interpreted as a promise to wed with a guarantee for a long and happy marriage. But, if a young lady refused a kiss, it was understood that bad luck would follow her the rest of her life. Historians credit early 19th-century writer Washington Irving with bringing the holiday kissing custom across the Atlantic Ocean to America. On the heels of Irving’s trip to England, he wrote The Sketch Book, which recorded various yuletide traditions he had observed. One such custom was stealing a kiss under the mistletoe. He wrote, “The mistletoe is hung up in farmhouses and kitchens at Christmas, and young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases.” (Irving, 1820). Centuries later, puckering up under the mistletoe is still a popular U.S. holiday tradition!
The Health Benefits:
Although there are health risks to eating various parts of the mistletoe (e.g., diarrhea, vomiting, weakness, blurred vision, and nausea), many ancient cultures revered this plant for its healing properties. The Romans used it as a balm against ulcers and epilepsy, and the Greeks used it as a cure for everything from menstrual cramps to spleen disorders. Today, the leaves, stems, and berries of the European mistletoe (Viscum album) are harvested to make teas and extracts reported to boost the immune system, improve cardiovascular health, relieve anxiety, enhance the quality of sleep, balance blood sugar, lower blood pressure, and reduce inflammation. It is a common complementary and alternative therapy for cancer treatment used by naturopath healers, and while the U.S. FDA has not approved mistletoe as a treatment for cancer or any other medical conditions, there are clinical trials underway at Johns Hopkins to learn about the impact of mistletoe injections on cancer patients.
It’s the most beautiful time of the year
Lights fill the streets spreading so much cheer
I should be playing in the winter snow
But I’mma be under the mistletoe!
~Justin Bieber – Mistletoe