By utilising the promise of potential romance, today’s word actually makes decorating worthwhile. Let’s be honest: when it comes to decorating for Christmas, nobody really likes untangling Christmas lights, finding pine needles everywhere, or wondering where you’re going to prominently display that festive cookie jar that Aunt Ethel got you 20 years ago. However, hanging the mistletoe – and the promise of what happens when that special someone pauses underneath it – definitely has its rewards. If you think about it though, it’s rather an odd custom, so where did the word come from and why does it make us yearn for a lip-lock at the yuletide?
Starting with the word itself, mistletoe comes from the Old English term mistiltan, with –tan meaning ‘twig’. As for the base term, mistil, this likely comes from the Old High German mash, meaning ‘sticky’, or mist, meaning ‘excrement’, which is how the seed is distributed by birds, such as the mistle thrush.
As far as the plant itself, mistletoe is a yellow/green hemiparasitic shrub that grows on the branches of other trees and bears white berries. The first known usages of the term can be found in the Old English of the Antwerp-London Glossaries, from around 1000AD, which, in the old spelling, simply mentions: “Uiscerago, mistiltan.”, and, from around the late 1300s/early 1400s, John Lelamour’s Translation of Macer’s Herbal, which explains: “Osmunda. Mistletoe and other bush grows upon oak trees and other trees.”
Though a parasitic excrement twig may not sound that interesting, mistletoe, likely owing to it remaining green and vital during Winter (when its host is dormant), has been prominently featured in legends and folklore. Celts and Greeks saw the plant as being a symbol of male virility. Trojan hero Aeneas used mistletoe to access the underworld. Norse mythology has a mistletoe arrow being used by Hodur via the trickery of Loki to kill his twin brother Balder. Finally, the Romans, during the December Saturnalia festival, used mistletoe to promote peace, love, and understanding, hanging it over doorways – sound familiar?
As for how or when all of the kissing started, well, we don’t really know. The earliest definitive mention of it can be found in the December 27, 1791 edition of The London Star, which explains that: “A custom of kissing women under the Mistletoe bush still prevails in many places”, but even the wording here indicates that the practice has already been going on for some time. Moreover, in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819), American author Washington Irving demonstrates that the cultural anomaly was well known in the United States as well, writing that: “The mistletoe is still hung up in farm houses and kitchens at Christmas; and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases.” Of course, the argument can also be made that, when you mix festivities and merriment, social situations, possibly alcohol, and a sprig of greenery long associated with virility, kissing (at the very least) was bound to happen. So, be mindful of where you’re standing (or what you’re standing under) this holiday season.