What’s the deal with mistletoe (and is it actually really creepy)?

We give you a brief and comprehensive history of the festive green leaves that launched a million Christmas kisses. How did the tradition begin? Is it, in reality, completely toxic?

I don’t know whether I’ve just never been approached with a bunch of mistletoe at Christmas before in my life or if I have and it was such an ordeal that I’ve simply buried it in the Big Yellow Storage facility of my mind, but either way I’m slightly glad.

It’s something that tends to live in old-fashioned Christmas songs – think Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe and Wine – or modern Hallmark movies, when the devastatingly, saccharinely handsome lead who has spent years running his dad’s wood shop needs an excuse to have an awkward meet cute with the city girl who swears she has no time for love. A neat bunch of mistletoe is whipped out at exactly the right time, the couple blush and have a sweet little kiss. 

It would be dangerous for me to be exposed to such a thing. You see, despite a tough exterior of sharp wit and confidence, I am actually incredibly awkward and non-confrontational. If someone was making a beeline to me at a party – arm raised, plant at the ready – I would be forced to kiss them so as not to publicly humiliate them. It’s a cutesy and clever way to elicit affection from those who may not usually be willing in a non-festive setting and it stinks. 

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According to CBBC’s Newsround (this is the level of research I can cope with at this time of year during a pandemic, folks) mistletoe is a “parasitic plant” that has to grow on other trees to get what it needs to live, which sounds extremely like several of my friends’ ex-boyfriends. The plant is also poisonous, so there’s another reason to avoid it at all costs.

Mistletoe falls under one of those myths and legends where no one can really pinpoint where the tradition started and why. According to history, the plant was used to help restore fertility among the druids in the first century AD. This theme of association with fertility continued through the Middle Ages and became incorporated into Christmas tradition when Victorian servants in England created the tradition of “stealing a kiss” from women using mistletoe, something that then made its way to the middle classes.

More whimsically, there was also reference to mistletoe in Norse mythology. Odin (that’s Chris Hemsworth’s dad in The Avengers and Thor movie franchise) had another son called Baldur, who had been foreseen to die. 

Baldur’s mother Frigg, the goddess of love, made a pact with the natural world – animals and plants and such – so they’d promise not to harm her Baldur, thus making him invincible.

However, she forgot to ask this of mistletoe, so enter Loki (Tom Hiddleston in The Avengers and Thor movie franchise) with an arrow made of mistletoe, who shoots Baldur.

Some versions of the myth proclaim that Frigg was able to resurrect her son, and afterwards declared mistletoe as a symbol of love. It’s a strong story and easy to see why it made it to the annals of mythology, but again it’s a bit of a stretch to see the trickle-down effect that led from Baldur’s near death to women being cornered by Keith in accounts at the Christmas party.  

“In the movies, a neat bunch of mistletoe is whipped out at exactly the right time – the couple blush and have a sweet little kiss.”

I suppose it’s a pretty harmless tradition – minus the literal poisonous aspect. I could get really deep into the conversation about consent and whether the use of mistletoe is blackmail used to guilt women into kissing men they don’t want to because of a social contract not to embarrass others in front of other people by rejecting them. 

It’s why women make up boyfriends when they are being hit on by men they don’t want to be hit on by. You’re not straight up telling them you’re not interested, you’re letting them down gently and most of the time (not all the time) they’ll accept the spiritual presence of another man and leave you alone. 

I could say that mistletoe is just another way of removing women’s agency under the guise of Christmas cheer, and that failing to concede is another way to position a woman as miserable or joyless or stuck up. But I won’t, because it’s Christmas and if I did I’m sure I’d be told to cheer up and have another glass of Baileys. So, I’ll admit that I just don’t get mistletoe. Others may enjoy this ancient festive tradition of stealing kisses beneath poisonous foliage but I think I’ll stick with the Baileys. 

Images: Getty