Stories from the Barn

A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands

Kissing Under the Mistletoe

Mistletoe in the host tree

Kissing under the mistletoe.

Advent Calendar 14
Kissing under the Mistletoe is a ritual at Christmas time. Doorways hang with a clump of white berried Mistletoe ready to capture the unsuspecting passerby. For most of the year the Mistletoe plant goes unnoticed. The balls of evergreen hang high in the treetops and not until the leaves fall from the trees do we see the Mistletoe garlanding the branches.


More about the Mistletoe plant.

It is a parasite which, if present in large enough numbers can kill the host plant. A mistletoe seed germinates on the branch of a host tree or shrub. It is an incredible piece of evolution because in the first stages the plant is independent of the host. Not until the shoot works its way under the bark does the parasitic process begin. The shoot penetrates deeper until it reaches the host’s conductive tissue. At this moment the host tree becomes the reservoir from which the Mistletoe can take water and nutrients.

The seeds which are toxic to man, are eaten by birds such as the Mistle Thrush. They excrete them onto the branch or wipe them from their bill and the process starts all over again. Each seed is coated in a sticky substance called viscin which hardens and fixes the seed to the branch.

Although it can kill the host if it becomes too invasive, it has no motive to do so. It has been shown to benefit other berry bearing plants nearby, as it attracts the birds necessary for seed distribution. For example Juniper thrives in the presence of Mistletoe.

Mistletoe in the host tree

Mistletoe in the host tree.

So why do we kiss under the mistletoe?

The origins of kissing under the Mistletoe are lost in the distant past but it has been considered a special plant for at least a thousand years. The Romans placed boughs of the evergreen plant above their doorways to protect their homes and the people inside. It was placed in doorways to ward off witches and evil spirits and the white berries were symbolic of male fertility.

It has also been linked to a tale in Norse mythology, nothing to do with kissing, about the god Baldur. So the story goes, Baldur’s mother Frigg, casts a powerful spell to ensure that no plant could be used as a weapon against her son. The plant that dodged the spell was the Mistletoe because it grows upon another plant and was thus untouched. An enemy of Baldur upon learning this, makes a spear out of mistletoe and kills him with it.

Interestingly two books were written about Mistletoe in 1719 and 1720 by John Colbatch an English apothecary. He wrote of the superstitions and folklore surrounding Mistletoe but didn’t mention kissing under the Mistletoe. We can suppose that the tradition started after that time. There is so much to unravel about the wonderful folklore in our British heritage.

By 1784 they were all at it underneath the Mistletoe and they wrote a song in celebration or maybe in hope?

What all the men, Jem, John, and Joe,

Cry, ‘What good-luck has sent ye?’

And kiss beneath the mistletoe,

The girl not turn’d of twenty.”