Why Is Mistletoe Used For Kissing?

The parasite has a complicated history.

“222 Words” is a series that gives you brief, 222-word explanations to the questions that would normally get lost in a day’s news cycle. Read them while you’re bored at work.


It’s not really clear why you’re supposed to kiss under mistletoe.

There are many theories: Druids might have hung mistletoe for good luck, and it’s possible the practice has unwittingly continued in different forms for generations. A Norse mythological story blames the plant for the death of Thor’s brother and warns mistletoe should not be ignored again. Europeans in the Middle Ages apparently associated it with fertility and vitality, perhaps inspiring the idea of kissing beneath the decoration.

At one point, the tradition had ground rules: Young men were allowed to kiss women under the mistletoe as long as they had a berry to pluck from the plant. When the berries were gone, the kissing was over.

The plant grows on trees with white pearls of berries creating magnificent orbs that can survive harsh winters. It’s a lovely thing of nature that would be nice to kiss near, regardless of tradition. Much like a tulip or a dog.

But mistletoe is also a parasite that kills the trees onto which it latches, draining the host of nutrients to increase its own fertility and vitality. It’s a beautiful, selfish monster. You can now use this complicated origin as ammo for that moment when you get stuck under the mistletoe this holiday season and need more to say than, “Uhhhhh ... Can we not?!”


For more on this subject:

  • Smithsonian examined the conflicting origin stories of the rise of mistletoe and gave an extended explanation into how the plant thrived biologically.

  • National Geographic summarized the history of mistletoe’s rise in popular culture.

  • Atlas Obscura suggested that maybe you shouldn’t kiss under the plant at all.

  • HuffPost went into the origins of mistletoe, as well as its parasitic nature.

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