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The holiday season is rife with songs about dancing around a Christmas tree, traveling around in a one-horse open sleigh and kissing beneath the mistletoe.
A case could be made for dancing near Christmas trees at holiday parties and although our sleighs are now enclosed for comfort powered by 480 invisible horses we’ve seen enough pictures and heard enough stories to understand the concept.
The mistletoe, however, is a stumper. In its natural environment, this plant is a toxic parasite relying on a tree host for its livelihood. How did a poisonous scourge become the sentimental romantic holiday icon as we know it today?
The truth is no one really knows.
Magical Mystery Plant
In terms of the holiday tradition, the mistletoe is just as mysterious today as it was to our Celtic ancestors. The ancient Druid priests believed the mistletoe to be magical. The plant seemed to appear from thin air. What’s more, it thrived with its lush leathery green leaves and plump white berries just as every other plant withered away.
Pagan societies revered this miracle plant and used it in practically every elixir. Most notably in potions for fertility. The UK’s Woodland Trust website notes the Pagans believed the plump white berries with its creamy pulp represented the “divine male essence”. The plant was added to livestock feed and hanged near the sleeping area of newlyweds to promote fertility.
The parasitic monster…
We now know the spurious plant actually begins as a seed enveloped in a sticky white substance called viscin inside the white berries. Birds eat the berries and the seed moves through their digestive systems unharmed. When the bird defecates some of the seeds stick to a tree’s branch.
As the seed sprouts, it digs its roots into the bark and begins to leech the nutrients from its host for its survival.
…that captured our hearts
What’s unclear is how did the magical miracle plant make the jump from a serious need to promote fertility to becoming an integral part of our cultural holiday celebration?
Perhaps the answer lies with the Victorians.
The Victorians loved to party and they were obsessed with tradition including ancient pagan and medieval customs. Although, they certainly added their own little twist a lot of what we recognize as Christmas symbols are around because of their reintroduction into society through their parties.
According to Meera Lester in her book, Why Does Santa Wear Red? present-day Christmas traditions lie at the crossroads of Victorians’ desire to host elaborate parties and “the rapid growth of factories during the industrial revolution…”. The increase in jobs meant “more people had more purchasing power for factory-produced items that were more affordable and readily available”.
A Victorian party may include an enormous dinner, dancing, and decorations harkening back to the days of yore. Among the decorations were doors and mantels draped in fresh greenery, lace wrapped citrus fruit studded with cloves hanging from the glorious Christmas tree, glass globes filled with greenery and a little mistletoe hanging from the ceiling or a doorway dubbed “kissing balls”.
Tanya Gulvich’s Encyclopedia of Christmas notes that the perception of the “physically reserved” British is relatively new and “was not always the case.” Dutch scholar Erasmus noted in the 16th century that the British were so fond of kissing when meeting and parting it was practically impossible to avoid being kissed.
The custom of actually kissing beneath the mistletoe does not appear in the written language until the 18th century, but Gulevich states it is written in such a way as to imply “common practice” by that time.
In an unusual trickle up approach, the act seems to have originated in the servants quarters where the butler permitted male servants to kiss their best girls beneath the mistletoe. The custom spread to the upper classes.
How it worked
The Victorian twist made any lady standing beneath the mistletoe fair game to be kissed by a gentleman. But there were rules. A berry must be plucked from the mistletoe after each kiss. No more mistletoe equals no more kisses. If a girl refused the kiss beneath the mistletoe superstition said she should expect no marriage proposals for at least six months to a year.
No still means no. Even under the mistletoe.
These days the act of kissing under the mistletoe seems to be reserved for already committed lovers and fodder for romantic holiday films.
It’s now known a lady is not fair game even if she is standing beneath the mistletoe. So before you go racing off to reintroduce the Victorian custom to your next office party beware; a season of company parties can lead to a January of lawsuits.
Have you kissed beneath the mistletoe? Did you break tradition? What were the results either way? I’d love to hear about.
Gulevich, T. and Stavros-Lanning, M. (2000) Encyclopedia of Christmas Detroit, MI Omnigraphics
Lester., M. Why does Santa wear red?
Mistletoe (Viscum album). Retrieved from https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/trees-woods-and-wildlife/plants-and-fungi/woodland-wildflowers/mistletoe/
Tainter, F.H. 2002. What Does Mistletoe Have To Do With Christmas? APSnet Features. Online. doi: 10.1094/APSnetFeature-2002-1202. Retrieved from http://apsnet.org/publications/apsnetfeatures/pages/mistletoe.aspx
Cohn, Alicia (2013, December 23) Bring Back the (Platonic, Cheerful, Unexpected) Mistletoe Kiss. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/12/bring-back-the-platonic-cheerful-unexpected-mistletoe-kiss/282600/