How did kissing beneath a sprig of parasitic poisonous plant to ward off evil spirits
and improve fertility come to be celebrated during modern holidays?
Through the ages, ancient Greeks and Celtic Druids bestowed magical powers on mistletoe. This attractive green leafy plant with white berries and strong roots grows through bark and sucks its nutrients from the mother-tree. Mistletoe can grow as a bush and it thrives in trees, but is rarely seen growing in oak trees. When found in an oak, Druid priests considered the parasitic plant a sex symbol and the soul of the tree.
Kissing under the mistletoe has so many powers; it is difficult to keep them all straight. In the Middle Ages, branches of mistletoe hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits. Today, decorating homes with mistletoe at Christmastime survives from Druid and pre-Christian traditions. In European folklore, mistletoe was even considered an aphrodisiac that could bestow life and fertility on believers.
In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a peace-plant helping enemies solve differences and could help warring couples make up. If you attended a Christmastime Kissing Ball in 18th century England, you had to agree to be kissed under the mistletoe. The special kiss might bring romance, lasting friendship and goodwill but any un-kissed girl would certainly not marry in the coming year, so there was a scramble for that kiss.
Many mistletoe beliefs are a mesh of lore and modern-day fun. Kissing under the mistletoe has become a holiday tradition representing peace and love. Just remember, no matter how hungry you are—don’t eat the mistletoe!
Some mistletoe varieties are poisonous and must not be consumed in any fashion. Keep the plant away from children and pets. Plants that contain phoratoxin can cause a variety of symptoms from blurred vision to blood pressure changes and death. Call Poison Control and seek medical attention if any of the leaves or berries are eaten.
ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center hotline at (888) 426-4435
US POISON CONTROL CENTER 1-800-222-1222
Betty Kuffel, MD