It’s been a staple of holiday parties and Christmas songs for generations, and everyone knows what you’re supposed to do when you’re standing underneath it.
But why is it a tradition to kiss underneath the mistletoe?
The plant, which is actually a parasite, has been used as a symbol of fertility for centuries, even dating back as far as the Celtic Druids in the 1st century AD
Mistletoe is unique in that it can grow even in the depths of winter, which contributes to its image of fertility and vivacity, especially when it sprouts among a batch of bare tree branches.
“It’s life in the midst of what seems to be death,” said Bruce Forbes, a holiday expert and professor emeritus of religious studies at Morningside University in Iowa.
The plant has also been tied to the Romans, who used it as a representation of peace, love and understanding and would hang it over doorways, historian Jane Vyer previously told the BBC.
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Mistletoe lore makes an appearance in Norse mythology, too. When Baldur, the son of a Norse god was prophesized to die, his mother, the goddess of love, instructed all animals and plants not to harm him but leave out the parasitic mistletoe. The legend says Baldur was killed by an arrow made out of mistletoe, and in some versions of the tale, brought back to life by it as well, leading his mother to declare it as a symbol of love, according to History.com.
Kissing under the mistletoe becomes a Christmas tradition
But the plant was not always associated with kissing at a Christmas gathering.
That tradition might have originated more recently. It’s mentioned in Christmas songs and poems in England by the 18th century.
In the US, the footsteps might be traced back to “Old Christmas,” a 19th-century book by Washington Irving, who scholars point to as an influential figure in shaping Christmas in America. The book captured some holiday traditions already in use in England and could have been a driving force in bringing them over to the US
“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, ” he wrote.
Eating the berries off a mistletoe plant seems to have fallen out of tradition in recent years, though, and perhaps rightfully so. Swallowing American mistletoe can cause an upset stomach.
Either way, the parasitic plant has grown into a fixture of the holiday season in the US
Forbes calls it one of the “big four” plants you’ll see at a mid-winter celebration, along with ivy, holly and evergreen trees (like Christmas trees and wreaths).
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Mistletoe is mentioned in classic Christmas songs like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by The Jackson 5, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by Brenda Lee, and Mariah Carey’s modern sensation, “All I Want For Christmas is You.”
And it can be found in all types of movies, ranging from Christmas staples like “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to more non-denominational films like the Harry Potter series, and – wait for it – “American Psycho.”
So whether it’s at a holiday party or in a Christmas movie, there’s a good chance you’ll run into mistletoe in the next few weeks. Just don’t try to eat it.
Follow Jay Cannon of USA TODAY on Twitter: @JayTCannon