Why do people kiss under the mistletoe?

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It’s the moment any Christmas partygoer dreads: stepping into a friend’s hallway to make your goodbyes and finding yourself surreptitiously standing under a sprig of mistletoe with a less-than-desirable (but just as unfortunate) stranger.

“Oh go on, you have to kiss, it’s tradition.”

And so you do. A chaste peck on the lips; nothing too crowd-pleasing (depending on how generous the drinks server was), although the distress of the moment is enough to have you screening your friend’s ceilings for the dreaded stuff for the next four weeks. 

Mistletoe makes it’s annual appearance in homes across the country once the countdown to Christmas kicks off, but what is it and why – if nothing but to embarrass our friends – do we insist on kissing underneath it? 

The story behind mistletoe

For centuries, mistletoe has been considered a plant that increases life and fertility. Norse legends tell the tale of Balder, son of the goddess Frigga, who was killed by an evil spirit with an arrow made of mistletoe. 

Saddened by her son’s death, Frigga wept tears of white berries, which brought Balder back to life. Frigga was so overjoyed that she blessed the plant and promised a kiss to all who passed beneath it from that day onwards. 

But we haven’t always been kissing at the sight of it. In ancient times, visitors would kiss the hand of a host under the mistletoe when they arrived as a way of honouring the Norse legend. 

Since then, the tradition has evolved to the custom we all know – if a woman is caught standing under the mistletoe, a man may kiss her. 

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What exactly is mistletoe?

It might have romantic connotations, but mistletoe is essentially a parasitic plant with poisonous berries, that depends on other plants for survival.

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Mistletoe: not as romantic as it may seem

The plant can only thrive if its seeds are carried to a host tree by birds that have eaten the mistletoe berries – which are toxic to humans. 


Birds who feed on the berries will discard of the seed inside, which is covered in a sticky coating, called “viscin.” Typically they will do this by wiping it from their beaks against a nearby branch. As the viscin hardens, the seed becomes attached to the host tree, stealing nutrients and water from it. In fact, the scientific name for American mistletoe (Phoradendron) is Greek for “thief of the tree.”

So next time you want to stall that awkward goodnight kiss, distract your friends with some mistletoe knowledge… and then make a run for it. 

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