Why Do We Kiss Under The Mistletoe?

Ever wonder why we kiss under the mistletoe? Unlike other winter time traditions, mistletoe has seemingly little to do with honoring the solstice or celebrating generosity. It is an eccentric ritual: when caught below its boughs, people are compelled to kiss one another or face a year of cursed romance–or so the tradition goes.

Mistletoe has a storied and often ritualistic history: in the early Iron Age, the Celts revered mistletoe as an emissary of fertility and life. They believed the mistletoe that grew on oaks retained the soul of the tree through the winter, as mistletoe (an evergreen plant) could survive the colder, darker months. Druids used mistletoe in ceremonies and in medicine, removing it from the tree and catching it before it fell to the ground (any mistletoe that touched the earth was thought to lose its mystic properties, which is perhaps where the practice of hanging mistletoe originates).

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Later, in the Viking age, Norse mythology identified mistletoe with Frigga, the goddess of love and marriage. According to legend, Frigga claimed mistletoe as a symbol of life, peace, and love after her son was slain by an arrow made of mistletoe and was brought back to life. As a way of honoring Frigga, folklore suggests Vikings kissed beneath mistletoe.

After losing prestige during the Christianization of Europe, mistletoe returned to the mainstream in the 18th and 19th centuries, when England experienced a renewed interest in ancient cultures. The practice of kissing beneath mistletoe boughs is believed to have begun among the servants and lower classes, slowly spreading up the echelons of society. Etiquette proscribed that a berry be picked for each kiss taken under the mistletoe; when the berries were gone, no more kisses could be claimed.

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Though the tradition has faded in recent years, kissing under the mistletoe remains an iconic feature of the Christmas season–one that is increasingly shown to improve health. A critical examination of traditional natural remedies in science has once more brought mistletoe to the forefront of medicine. Recent studies have shown African mistletoe’s ability to potentially combat hypertension and gastrointestinal complaint. Many of its other health claims–everything from combating cancer to alleviating headaches–have yet to be backed by significant scientific research, but mistletoe remains a point of interest for medical researchers. It seems the plant holds more secrets than previously assumed– just remember not to kiss and tell.

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