Christmas Kissing: How Mistletoe Became a Kissing Cue

December 24, 2018 by Justin Lehmiller

A lot of people decorate with mistletoe around Christmas, hanging it from the ceiling or over a door. Mistletoe is more than just a holiday decoration, though—it’s also a cue for smooching. People offer kisses to those who stand or walk under it. Have you ever wondered why, though? How did mistletoe come to be associated with kissing anyway? Here’s what we know.

Mistletoe is a parasitic plant. It penetrates the branches of a tree, giving it the ability to steal nutrients and water. This lets mistletoe grow and thrive while the host tree suffers. As a result, it’s not something you’d actually want to find in your back yard!

Mistletoe is a species of phoradendron, a name that literally means “tree thief” or “thief of the tree” in Greek, reflecting its parasitic nature. In light of this, it makes sense that, as a holiday decoration, this theme of thievery has carried over, with mistletoe being used as an excuse to “steal” kisses (though it’s not truly stealing because people standing under mistletoe obviously have the right of refusal).

This thievery connotation probably isn’t why mistletoe came to be linked to kissing in the first place, though. It likely has more to do with the fact that mistletoe has long been seen as a fertility symbol. This is because mistletoe can grow just about anywhere. For example, some species grow in the desert, whereas others thrive in the dead of winter. This plant’s ability to survive even in the harshest weather conditions is why mistletoe was long used as a treatment for infertility in humans and animals alike in many cultures.

In addition to being a symbol of fertility, it’s worth pointing out that mistletoe played a pivotal role in ancient Norse folklore, in which the gods declared this plant to be a symbol of love and life.

So mistletoe went from being a sacred plant thought to promote health and fertility to a holiday decoration that inspires kissing. When exactly the holiday tradition began remains unclear, but now that you have some sense of the history of mistletoe’s symbolism, the fact that it has become a cue to kiss probably makes a little more sense.

Happy Holidays!

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Image Source: 123RF/Anna Bizon

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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