Beneath The Bough Of Mistletoe. (Repost.)

In the spirit of the season I’m re-gifting this post from a few years ago.

The tradition of kissing under mistletoe is one I’ve always wondered about. Specifically, how much of an obligation is there? If mistletoeyou’re standing under mistletoe and you don’t realize it do you still have to be kissed? Or do you have to kiss a complete stranger if you see them standing under mistletoe? What are the repercussions if you don’t kiss them? Would a handshake do? With all the colds and flu going around at this time of year maybe it would be better to leave it at a friendly nod. That’s what I’d prefer, especially when I think back to family gatherings where, even without any mistletoe around, I always had to kiss my great Aunt Gerda, which was like making out with an oversized kiwi.

Anyway, I decided to do some research into the history of the tradition of kissing under mistletoe and found, well, not much. It seems pretty obvious that the tradition is pagan in origin, and there are very old accounts of mistletoe being used to promote fertility. Mistletoe stays green throughout the winter, so it really stands out on the trees it grows on. Just around town I know at least half a dozen places to find real live mistletoe, not the cheap plastic crap they have in the stores, although that does raise an interesting question: if it’s not real mistletoe do you have to do something different if you see someone standing under it, like punch them in the face? What I found in my research, though, is that the first mention of the tradition of kissing under mistletoe in print only dates from 1813. The tradition itself must be much older than that, but no one really knows how much older, or how it got started in the first place.

There are some interesting variants to the tradition, though. In some places it was believed that if the mistletoe wasn’t burned on Christmas Day or by Twelfth Night then all the couples who’d kissed under it would be enemies by the end of the year, which would be a really good way to break up people you really don’t think belong together, especially if you want to date one of them yourself. And in other places anyone who didn’t get or give a kiss under mistletoe at a Christmas party would be beaten with a broom, which brings back memories of my senior prom, but that’s another story.

druidsThere’s also a lot of non-kissing lore associated with mistletoe. Back in AD 77 Pliny wrote that the Druids revered mistletoe and would cut it from the tree with a scythe made of gold. It’s an interesting story, but there are two problems with it. For one thing Pliny was writing about people in France, not Druids, and he also says his source is something he read on the internet. People believed mistletoe grew on trees that had been struck by lightning, so putting mistletoe on a house protected it from ever being hit, since everyone knows that lightning never strikes the same place twice, and is also extremely gullible. Mistletoe was also a medieval form of aloe, since people believed it could cure anything, and was even sometimes called allheal. It was sometimes applied to wounds, or occasionally eaten by people who died before they could tell anyone what it tastes like, since mistletoe is poisonous.

In some parts of Britain it was considered very important to feed mistletoe to the first cow to give birth in the new year. This was supposed to guarantee a healthy herd, which would be useful since the cow that ate the mistletoe would probably be giving poisoned milk for a while. And, strangely enough, even though mistletoe is poisonous some people believed it was an antidote to any poison. Maybe people thought that if you’d been poisoned if you swallowed some mistletoe the two poisons would fight it out and leave you alone. Or maybe they were operating on the principle that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I really don’t know. All I do know is that, if given the choice, I think I would rather eat mistletoe than have to kiss my Aunt Gerda again.

18 Comments

  1. Ann Koplow

    A kiss and a friendly nod to you, Chris, for this wonderful regift.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it and I appreciate the friendly nod. I assume the kiss was for Michael.

      Reply
      1. Ann Koplow

        It was a kiss on the cheek for you, Chris, but now I’m going to go kiss Michael, since you assumed that already. Witness the mighty power of mistletoe!

        Reply
  2. Pingback: Beneath The Bough Of Mistletoe. (Repost.) – Freethinkers Anonymous | Cindy Dorminy's Writing World

  3. cindy dorminy

    Great post. Everyone has an Aunt Gerda. *shudders*

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Yes, and some of us were lucky enough to have several.

      Reply
  4. Kristine @MumRevised

    I love that you have a great Aunt Gerta. Everyone should have one/have to run from one. Thanks for doing the research that I would never do because I plan to look smart in front of my kids. That, my friend, is a real gift and I thank you for it.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      If the only thing I can accomplish is helping others look smart in their kids then all the research was worth it. And true fact: almost all the research I did was looking through physical books rather than just relying on Google.
      I leave using Google to Pliny.

      Reply
  5. Library Heather

    Great post. Informative and funny. I think a hug or friendly nod should also be a perfectly acceptable response if one finds oneself accidentally under the mistletoe with a person one doesn’t wish to kiss. (However, now that you mention it, I would secretly like to be the Wielder of the Broom at a Christmas party of the old tradition. Whacking disagreeable people with a broom at a Christmas party sounds like my idea of fun.) As an aunt, although not a Gerda, I love getting hugs from my nieces and nephews although I hope they never feel obligated.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I’m sure your nieces and nephews never feel obligated, although if you start whacking them with a broom they might be afraid to come near you. I could really see that tradition being revived although I just know somebody’s going to get a little overenthusiastic with it and end up a story on the news.
      It wouldn’t be any worse than the way some people act on Black Friday though.

      Reply
  6. Gina W.

    Thanks for making me think about mistletoe WAAAAAAAAAY more than I ever thought possible. That sounds snarky but is sincere. I didn’t have an Aunt Gerda but I did have an Uncle Kenny, who was an alcoholic smoker. I dreaded hugging and kissing him. I don’t know if it was the smell of the booze or cigarettes that was worse. I don’t make my son kiss people he doesn’t want to kiss because I read one time that it makes children more likely to be sexually abused if they feel like they can’t say no in regards to their own body; that they have to do whatever adults tell them to do. In any case, no one wants to kiss anyone else unless it is mutually desired by both parties.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      It’s amazing how much information there can be behind things we take for granted. Maybe next I’ll look into the origins of tinsel. Who knows? It may have its origins in Assyrian river rituals or something. And it’s great that you don’t make your son kiss anyone if he doesn’t want to. That’s a pretty dark thought that children are more likely to be sexually abused, but it also makes sense.

      Reply
  7. Margot

    When standing under cheap, plastic, crappy mistletoe it’s customary to follow the pretentious (in the U.S.) European tradition of kissing both cheeks. It’s important that they are air kisses only and that one says “mwah” after each “kiss”. If the individual under the mistletoe is Aunt Gerda, three air kisses and “mwahs” are required along with actual cheek to cheek contact. Note that it is unnecessary for one’s lips to make contact with the cheek.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this guide to cheap, plastic, crappy mistletoe etiquette. Not only is it informative but it also gives me a really good reason to stay away from that stuff. I’m also pretty sure it’s prone to spontaneous combustion. It’s a little known fact that there’s a fifth law of thermodynamics: pretentiousness, like heat, rises.

      Reply
  8. Gilly Maddison

    This really funny Christopher – unless you are Aunt Gerda of course in which case, I would guess you are now out of the will. Giant Kiwi? I think we’ve all had aunts like that! I am with you on the polite nod, especially in the flu season… not to mention garlic breath, wine breath, beer breath and well, just breath in general. Not keen on sharing anyone else’s if I don’t have a full health history and it happens to not be my husband. Mistletoe always reminds me of THAT guy at the office party who brings his own mistletoe and whips it out, holds it above your head while trapping you between the photocopier and the escape route and then tries to eat your face in the name of Christmas. Oh and I think tinsel was invented by fairies but maybe you will need to Google that make sure.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Since I didn’t want to be responsible for a collection of worthless faux porcelain figurines I made sure I was out of Aunt Gerda’s will a long time ago. Also I’m glad that my office doesn’t have one of THOSE guys who brings mistletoe to parties, not because I think I’d be in any danger but I’d just hate for any of my co-workers to be subjected to that. Although I’m also the only guy in my office which made me briefly worry that I was THAT guy, but then I remembered the only thing I’ve ever brought to an office holiday party is homemade potato salad and dreidels.
      One of my wife’s uncles makes Oysters Rockefeller every Christmas. It’s very tasty but now I’m going to be thinking about what the combination of oysters, bacon, spinach, parmesan, and seasonings does to your breath, and grateful for the absence of mistletoe.

      Reply
  9. Spoken Like A True Nut

    I can’t help but think that in the old days of upright morals and chaperones, people were just looking for any socially acceptable way to get frisky with each other in public.

    Reply
    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Now you’ve got me thinking that people who didn’t get kissed under the mistletoe at Victorian parties weren’t literally beaten with a broom. I’m thinking that’s really a euphemism.

      Reply

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