Why Do People Kiss Beneath Mistletoe?

two people kissing beneath mistletoe

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As I explored in my previous articles on the ancient Celtic midwinter mistletoe rite and the origins of hanging mistletoe at Christmas, mistletoe has long been associated with fertility.

To the ancient Celts, it was a “medico-magical” plant. Mistletoe potions were believed to make barren animals (and humans) “fruitful.”

What’s more, some ancient Celts believed that mistletoe, which was gathered during the winter and summer solstices, had the power to “reveal treasures in the earth,” (source: Folklorist and anthropologist James George Frazer, The Golden Bough).

In Sweden, people traditionally made divining rods from mistletoe on Midsummer’s Eve and searched for precious metals—so clearly there’s some universality to this idea of mistletoe possessing the power of divination. But I digress.

Now, imagine if, down the line, later European peoples conflated these two associations of mistletoe—fertility and divination—and came to believe that the plant was capable of divining romantic futures.

Turns out, you don’t have to imagine: That’s exactly what happened. Or at least, that’s what happened in some corners of Britain. To quote Frazer:

“At Pulverbatch, in Shropshire, it was believed within living memory that the oak-tree blooms on Midsummer Eve and the blossom withers before daylight. A maiden who wishes to know her lot in marriage should spread a white cloth under the tree at night, and in the morning she will find a little dust, which is all that remains of the flower. She should place the pinch of dust under her pillow, and then her future husband will appear to her in her dreams. This fleeting bloom of the oak, if I am right, was probably the mistletoe…The conjecture is confirmed by the observation that in Wales a real sprig of mistletoe gathered on Midsummer Eve is similarly placed under the pillow to induce prophetic dreams.”

source: The Golden Bough (1890)

No, there’s no smooching in the above examples, and there’s no Christmas, but there is a courtship ritual in the making. It reminds me of the origins of bobbing for apples, another courtship ritual that began as an ancient Celtic ceremony. And one can glean from the above passage the evolution of mistletoe from a lucky/holy/healing plant to a plant that is capable of predicting who will fall in love with whom.

Now, imagine you’re a young whippersnapper at a Christmas celebration in 18th-century England, and you see this evergreen plant—with its plump, white berries and romantic connotations—hanging above your head and the head of your sweetheart.

Might you lean in for a kiss? It’s entirely possible that’s how the tradition got started. As Miles explains:

“It is hard to say exactly what is the origin of the English ‘kissing under the mistletoe,’ but the practice would appear to be due to an imagined relation between the love of the sexes and the spirit of fertility embodied in the sacred bough, and it may be a vestige of the licence often permitted at folk-festivals. According to one form of the English custom the young men plucked, each time they kissed a girl, a berry from the bough. When the berries were all picked, the privilege ceased.”

source: Christmas In Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan (1912)
"Christmas gambols, or a kiss under the mistletoe" Etching with stipple (1794) source: The Trustees of the British Museum
“Christmas gambols, or a kiss under the mistletoe” Etching with stipple (1794) source: The Trustees of the British Museum

There is another school thought, however, that says kissing under the mistletoe is not British/Celtic in origin, but Norse.

Specifically, there’s the story of Baldur, in which his mother Frigga casts a spell to prevent any plant grown on earth from being used against Baldur as a weapon. Loki, cunning as he is, makes a spear out of mistletoe, which—as we’ve learned—grows above the earth.

Long story short: Baldur dies. Frigga is sad, and, in some retellings, she declares mistletoe to be a symbol of love and henceforth kisses anyone who passes beneath it. Seems like a pretty straightforward origin for the custom of kissing beneath the mistletoe at Christmas, right? Only here’s the thing:

It’s bullsh*t.

As historian Mark Forsyth, author of A Christmas Cornucopia: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Yuletide Traditions, explains: “Baldur’s death involves mistletoe, but it’s got nothing to do with kissing or Christmas.” (source: TIME)

Forsyth goes on to note that the tradition, as we know it today, started in England sometime between 1720 and 1784, with the earliest written reference to it appearing in a song published in 1784:

“What all the men, Jem, John, and Joe,

Cry, ‘What good-luck has sent ye?’

And kiss beneath the mistletoe,

The girl not turn’d of twenty.”

And while there is no definitive explanation as to how the custom of kissing under the mistletoe got started in 18th-century England, Forsyth has an idea:

“I can take a pretty shrewd guess that it involved a particularly lusty and inventive boy, and a particularly gullible girl.”

source: A Christmas Cornucopia: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Yuletide Traditions (2018)

Even if we take this very probable origin story as the truth, it does not rule out the influence Celtic culture had on this kissing ritual. After all, our theoretical “lusty and inventive” English boy would have lived in a society where the mistletoe’s magico-romantic connotations—passed down from ancient Celts—were already present.

If only there were another piece of evidence that could bolster the Celtic-origin-for-kissing-under-the-mistletoe hypothesis. Say, the presence of a similar custom in a region (not in Britain) that would have similarly experienced Celtic influence in its early history. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… Austria. To quote Miles:

“Kissing under the mistletoe seems to be distinctively English. There is, however, a New Year’s Eve custom in Lower Austria and the Rhaetian Alps that somewhat resembles our mistletoe bough practices. People linger late in the inns, the walls and windows of which are decorated with green pine-twigs. In the centre of the inn-parlour hangs from a roof-beam a wreath of the same greenery, and in a dark corner hides a masked figure known as “Sylvester,” old and ugly, with a flaxen beard and a wreath of mistletoe. If a youth or maiden happens to pass under the pine wreath Sylvester springs out and imprints a rough kiss. When midnight comes he is driven out as the representative of the old year.”

source: Christmas In Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan (1912)

This is easily one of the creepiest customs I’ve ever heard of… which totally aligns with all of the creepy stuff (by today’s standards) that the ancient Celts got up to. It’s also worth noting that Austria is, arguably, the “birthplace” of the Celts, with the earliest traces of Celtic culture appearing in what is now Hallstatt, Austria in the early Iron Age (around 1200 BCE).

But hey, that’s a story for another time. (Or, I mean, you can read it now if you want: “Where Did Celtic Culture Originate?”)

Editor’s note: this article was an excerpt from a longer piece, “The Celtic Origins of Kissing Under the Mistletoe at Christmas.”

You can also watch the video essay version on my YouTube channel 👇

Further Reading

Want to learn about the darker side of Irish mythology? Check out…

Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)

Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…

Irish Monsters in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 3)

In the Ireland of myth and legend, “spooky season” is every season. Spirits roam the countryside, hovering above the bogs. Werewolves lope through forests under full moons. Dragons lurk beneath the waves. Granted, there’s no denying that Samhain (Halloween’s Celtic predecessor) tends to bring out some of the island’s biggest, baddest monsters. Prepare yourself for (educational) encounters with Irish cryptids, demons, ghouls, goblins, and other supernatural beings. Learn more…

Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…

More the listenin’ type?

I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.

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