Mistletoe History and Etiquette

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One holiday tradition no one can Grinch about: the mistletoe kiss. It can be a warm, friendly greeting or a chance to plant a smooch on someone you’d like to unwrap in the New Year.

It seems like a strange and arbitrary ritual to kiss beneath this particular plant and its origins are as intriguing as some of the kisses can be.

For starters, mistletoe is a partial parasite – fine on its own but also able to grow on the side of another tree (weirdly fitting for a love plant, no?) In many European cultures it’s been regarded as protection against evil spirits and poison and an aid in peace and fertility. It grew on apple trees and sacred oaks and was highly regarded by the Druids who would cut it with a golden sickle on the winter solstice, sacrifice two white bulls and bestow the plant onto a lucky recipient who would receive magical benefits. The Greeks saw it as a symbol of sex and fertility and used it in their winter celebration of Saturnalia. In the Norse myth of the goddess Frigga and her son Balder, the boy dreams he’s going to die and Frigga begs all the elements, animals and plants never to harm him – except the mistletoe. The trickster Loki uses this information to bring about Balder’s death. When he was resurrected the grateful Frigga kissed all who passed beneath the mistletoe and giving it its joyous reputation.

So mistletoe has long had associations with kissing but the tradition has changed over time. In Washington Irving’s Christmas Eve the author relates the practice of men having to pluck one berry from the bush every time they kiss a woman underneath it; when the berries are gone so is their freedom to kiss the girls.

Thanksfully that arbitrary limit is passé. But what’s the appropriate place to hang mistletoe? And is it okay to blindside someone with an Adrian-Brody-attacks-Halle-Berry kiss?

I’d say the inside of the front door frame is a safe mistletoe spot, since kisses are exchanged there anyway and you can make more or less out of it, depending on the kissee. If you’re having a party you could hang it in the doorway to the kitchen or whatever other area in your home people tend to gather. That way you’re free to make an issue of it, whether to embarrass someone else or snag someone you’d like to smooch. If you want to be more subtle than Mr. Brody just let the platonic kiss last a second or two longer than it should – the other person will get the message and be left wanting lots more.

As for those you don’t want to be stuck under the mistletoe with? Your best bet is to intiate, move in with a longish peck on the cheek and maybe a nice noisy “mmmmwah!” to go with it: short, sweet and face-saving. You can’t Scrooge out on mistletoe kisses – and sometimes that’s a wonderful thing.

Image via Photography King Flickr

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