Kissing under the mistletoe has become a core Christmas tradition in Britain and if you find yourself standing underneath a sprig with somebody else over the festive period you should prepare for them to lean forward for a kiss. However, how did it all come about? Why do we feel compelled to have a peck on the lips by this little piece of greenery?
The answer, like most things, lies in the past.
For the Druids, Mistletoe was a sacred plant and used by the priesthood in a special ceremony held five days after the New Moon following the winter solstice (which just happens to be today). The priests would distribute sprigs of the plant to people to hang over doorways and protect themselves from evil spirits. People believed that it had miraculous properties that could cure illnesses, ensure fertility and protect against witchcraft. It was also a sign of peace and goodwill and represented fertility and love, mainly due to the fact that it remained so green even in the depths of winter.
It is thought that these connections were drawn from Norse mythology. According to some versions of the story, Baldur (sometimes spelled Baldr or Balder) was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe. The goddess Frigg, his mother, wept tears which turned to white berries when they touched his flesh wound. Miraculously, his wounds was healed, he came back to life and Frigg blessed the mistletoe and promised a kiss to anyone who came underneath it. There are many versions of this story but it is thought that this could be the basis of the origin.
If you grow apple trees then there is a good chance that you might have had a conversation in the past about encouraging your trees to play host to mistletoe. It tends to be associated with orchards although in reality it can be found on a whole variety of trees, including silver birch, oak and even eucalyptus, depending on the species of mistletoe. Whilst European mistletoe (Viscum album) is the species we recognise, there are various others found around the world including Iberia, North Africa, Asia and Australia.
Mistletoe is a hemiparasitic plant (they perform at least a little photosynthesis although the contribution is minimal) which penetrates the branches of a tree or shrub and takes nutrients and water from it. The seeds are usually spread by birds eating the berries and squeezing the seed out onto a branch. The bird will wipe the sticky coating known as viscin onto the branch and the seed will begin to work itself into the host tree. Eventually you will end up with large clumps of mistletoe, which are usually quite difficult to get to, as they tend to grow at the tops of trees (of course this depends on how tall the tree is!).