If you knew what the name “mistletoe” meant, you MAY be less inclined to stand under it. The quasi-parasitic plant has a “symbiotic relationship” with a bird called the mistle thrush. The bird eats the berries, digests the seeds and then leaves droppings which eventually grow into new mistletoe plants. So the Germanic word for “mistletoe” literally means “dung on a twig.” The plant was given the name “misteltan” in Old English from “mistel”, meaning “dung”, and “tan”, the plural of “ta”, meaning “twig”. Mistletoe” is another way of saying “dung twig”.
Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?
It was considered a prized plant throughout history by the Ancient Greeks, Celts, Babylonians, and Scandinavians. The Ancient Greeks considered the plant an aphrodisiac, believed it aided fertility and could be used to achieve eternal life.
Ancient Babylon had the closest thing to our current tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. Single women looking for a mate stood outside of the temple of the goddess of love. Mistletoe was hung over the entrance and when a potential suitor approached one of the ladies, they were supposed to bond with him. They did not kiss, however, as kissing wasn’t a way to show affection at that time in the Babylonian empire.
Norseman had many traditions and legends about mistletoe. One tradition was that mistletoe was a plant of peace and so that when enemies met under the mistletoe they were obliged to stop fighting for at least a day. Eventually, a tradition started to hang mistletoe over the doorway of one’s home for peace and good luck.
By the 18th century in Britain, the kissing tradition had evolved- a ball of mistletoe that would be hung as a Christmas decoration. If a couple was found standing under the mistletoe, they were then obliged to kiss if the mistletoe ball still had berries. For each kiss, one berry would be taken from the ball. Once all the berries were gone, all the “luck” in love and marriage was considered to be drained out of the mistletoe and it was now considered bad luck to kiss beneath it, instead of good luck as before.