December 24, 2012

A Kiss Under the Mistletoe: History of Mistletoe

"A memorial of customs departed:
For the maids they all try to seem bashful and shy," - Blackwood's Lady's Magazine 1841

 Mistletoe is a ubiquitous plant that has been used in holiday decorating since at least the 1400s. It is characterized by its dark green leaves and striking white berries. There are over 1,300 types of mistletoe and the plants themselves are partially parasitic. The plant gets its water and nutrients from a host tree while using its leaves to convert light into energy.

In the winter, it can be seen growing out of tree branches and tree trunks, lush and green when all of its surroundings are dead. It was precisely this reason that mistletoe was seen as a mystical plant to early peoples.Though it has been linked with romance for centuries, its name roughly translates as "excrement on a twig" which is an allusion to how people thought the seeds were spread. The Mistletoe that grows in the United States is different from the type that grows in Europe but both were used in decorating.
The magic of mistletoe certainly comes from the kissing traditions linked to it. Historically, on Christmas a gentleman could steal a kiss from a young lady caught under the mistletoe, then he had to pluck a white berry off of it. When all of the berries were gone, no more kissing could commence.It was said that couples that kissed under it at Christmas would be married within the year.
Image from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, many books proclaimed the practice vulgar, others insisted that it was only something done amongst country people and servants. It was said to be a test of feat for young men and a test of coyness for young ladies, who could refuse the attempt. Regardless of the views on the practice, mistletoe was a big part of household decorations along with pine boughs, holly and ivy.

You can almost see the celebrations where a young man, drumming up courage to propose to a lady caught a break at a Christmas dance, where his lady of choice was momentarily thrust under the mistletoe.  Caught off guard she accepted his kiss which heightened his spirits enough to ask her father soon after. How romantic! I'm sure there were equal numbers of heartbreaks that happened beneath the mistletoe as well.

The Mirror of Literature and Amusement, published in 1841, gives some hearty advice on holiday cheer, some of which involves mistletoe:

"On this day all must be friends, everybody must be goodhumoured, eat , drink, and be merry. To day we will have no fasting men, and no tee-totallers. Every belly must be well lined with the good roast beef of old England, turkey, sausage, plum-pudding, and mincepie ; and every lip shall sip the juice of the vine, "the merry cheerer of the heart," or shall pour down " potations pottle deep" of good home-brewed ale. He who can't sing shall pipe, and he who can't dance shall hop, stand on his head, or do something or other to please the company. Unmarried ladies, not forgetting our favourite old maids, shall be kissed under the mistletoe bough; and no supper for those that skulk from this excellent privilege of the season. There shall be hearty laughter and much frolic in the kitchen, where the "yule log" shall burn on the fire, and the largest bunch of mistletoe and holly shall hang from the beam, while the floor shakes with the Highland reel, the Irish jig, and the English hornpipe; and John, Thomas, Susan, and Ann, shall sing bravely to the fiddle and flute. Christmas comes but once a-year, so pray let us make the most of it. Let every home be cheered with mirth, plenty, and kindness.

"Bring more wood and set the glasses.
Join, my friends, our Christmas cheer,
Come, a catch !—and kiss the lasses,
Christmas comes but once a-year."
Enjoy the holidays and keep your eye out for mistletoe!


  1. Thanks for providing some background into the history of mistletoe! :) It's always interesting to learn where traditions like this come from.

    Merry Christmas, Stephanie! :)

  2. Thanks! Is "Merry Christmas" common there or is that leftover from living in the states?

    Anyway, Merry Christmas!

    1. It depends on the person, but most people tend to say "Merry Christmas" here. :)


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