Kissing under sprigs of mistletoe is a well-known holiday tradition, but this little plant’s history as a symbolic herb dates back thousands of years. The Greeks were known to use it as a remedy for everything from menstrual cramps to spleen disorders, and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder noted that it could be used as a balm for epilepsy, ulcers, and poisons.
The plant’s romantic connotations probably began with Celtic Druids 1st century AD Because mistletoe could flower even during freezing winters, Druids came to view it as a sacred symbol of vivacity and administered it to humans and animals in hopes of restoring fertility.
European Christmas customs
Another famous chapter of mistletoe folklore comes from Norse mythology. As the story goes, when the death of the god Odin’s son Baldur was prophesied, his mother Frigg, the goddess of love, went to all the animals and plants of the natural world to obtain the oath that they wouldn’t hurt him.
But Frigg neglected to consult the unassuming mistletoe, so the scheming god Loki made an arrow from the plant and saw that it was used to kill the otherwise invincible Baldur. According to a sunnier version of the myth, the gods could have raised Baldur from the dead. Delighted, Frigg then declared that mistletoe was a symbol of love and vowed to plant a kiss on anyone who passed under it.
Mistletoe’s associations with fertility and vitality continued throughout the period. Middle Ages, and by the 18th century it had become widely incorporated into Christmas celebrations. How it went from being a sacred herb to being a holiday decoration remains a matter of debate, but the kissing tradition appears to have first spread among servants in England before spreading to the middle classes.
As part of early customs, men were allowed to steal a kiss from any woman caught under the mistletoe, and refusing was considered bad luck. Yet another tradition required partygoers to pluck a single berry from the mistletoe with each kiss and to stop kissing once they were all gone.