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Why do we hang mistletoe at Christmas, and kiss beneath it?

A soldier of the Machine Gun Corps in a sheepskin coat kissing a French farm-girl under a sprig of mistletoe, near Hesdin, 20 December 1917.
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Romance aside, this poisonous pretty was considered a "plant of peace"

No more than two generations ago an unassuming plant helped to decorate nearly every home during Christmas gatherings. A little bundle of leaves and berries was tied together with red ribbon and hung from the door jamb between dining and living rooms; the perfect spot for gals and guys passing beneath to sneak a holiday kiss.

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe goes back hundreds of years, and folklore tells of its symbolic meaning of fertility and peace. It’s thought that the earliest association was with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, celebrating the abundance and fertility of the earth, and later with primitive marriage rites for fruitfulness. In Scandinavia, it was considered a plant of peace, under which enemies could declare a truce—and from that model, offered a way for warring spouses to kiss and make-up. The symbolism of unity was easily translated into Christian beliefs of forgiveness, charity, and devoted love.

The mistletoe, Phoradendron tomentosum, is an evergreen plant that grows into the bark of tree limbs, often where the limbs fork and moisture collects. Birds are the primary means of planting, eating the berries and spreading seeds through their waste. Mistletoe, like most plants, produces food through its leaves by photosynthesis; parasitically it relies on the host plant—the tree—for water and minerals.

Gill Poole CC
Gill Poole CC

The plant is toxic, and consuming a whole branch could be fatal — that’s one reason the plant is no longer favored for in-house decoration. Here are a few things to consider when hanging this holiday decoration.

In homes with small children and pets, purchase artificial mistletoe. There are several varieties on the market, from those made of silk that look very realistic, to the other extreme, a glitter-sprinkled plastic decoration available at craft stores.

If you do pick up branches, they come in two forms: dehydrated or fresh. Depending on where you live, you can purchase a few fresh sprigs and tie them together with ribbon or decorate a Styrofoam ball to make the traditional “kissing ball.” Wash your hands after handling the plant, or wear gloves. Because it is a living plant, it will only keep in a warm, dry house for a short time. Pre-packaged dried sprigs are available and will last longer should you have multiple celebrations.

I remember my Italian grandmother hanging fresh mistletoe in the archway at Christmas. There were several grandchildren, and gatherings often took place over three weeks. For safety’s sake and to keep the plant looking fresh longer, she would dip the sprigs in wax before tying them with a red satin bow. The wax kept the berries and leaves from falling off—even if Uncle Harold, in his exuberance, jostled the kissing ball with his fluttering hands.

Bart Everson CC
Bart Everson CC

So this Christmas, if you are using real mistletoe, remember to “handle with care” — good advice, also, for how we interact with each other during this season, which often brings a measure of stress underneath all the love: Stay away from what is toxic, while creating opportunities to offer a kiss of mercy and forgiveness. Merry Christmas!

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