If you've ever wound up making out with someone at a holiday party just because you happen to be standing underneath a green plant with red berries on it, you might have wondered why we kiss underneath mistletoe. I mean, there are a lot of reasons to kiss around the holidays: Festive cheer is in the air, something is in that spiked eggnog, and everyone looks cute in Christmas sweaters and holiday dresses. But a plant? Really?
I'm not knocking the tradition. An hour before I threw a holiday party in college, I realized I needed to find mistletoe. I darted around to three florists in my neighborhood, desperate for the plant. No luck. Time was ticking. I ran home as it started to rain, scooping up fistfuls of damp trimmings from Christmas trees I found on the sidewalk. I taped them in clumps above each doorway in my off-campus apartment.
Objectively, I recognize that sounds ridiculous. And yet, it would be sad to have a holiday party without a little mistletoe. Justin Bieber wisely appreciates this, which might explain why he even named his 2011 Christmas album Under the Mistletoe. (Sample lyrics: "I don't wanna miss out on the holiday / But I can't stop staring at your face / I should be playing in the winter snow / But I'ma be under the mistletoe.")
Clearly, the tradition isn't going anywhere any time soon. But where does it come from?
Why Do We Kiss Under Mistletoe?
There are a few different possible explanations. One of the most prominent comes from a Norse myth. (FYI: Norse mythology comes from a group of Germanic people who lived in Scandinavia from 800 to 1300 A.D.)
You know Thor? Like, in the Chris Hemsworth movies? In traditional Norse mythology, Thor is the son of the god Odin, who also had a son named Baldur with the goddess Frigg. According to a myth, Baldur was killed by an evil spirit with an arrow made of mistletoe. Frigg was so upset that her tears turned to white berries — the same berries that mistletoe now bears. She blessed the plant and promised a kiss to everyone who passes beneath it from that day forward. That myth evolved into a Nordic tradition, in which visitors kiss their host's hands under mistletoe while traveling.
The tradition came to America thanks to waves of immigration to the Upper Midwest beginning in the 19th century. Somehow, along the way, it became associated with Christmas. But these days, it's more popular stateside than it is where it originated. "It's not a huge tradition in Nordic culture today," says Maren Johnson, director of Nordic Studies at Luther College. "Open expressions of emotion are not something you typically characterize as Nordic." So even though the tradition comes from that part of the world, it's not really that popular there anymore.
In the United Kingdom, kissing under mistletoe was a tradition started by Victorians in the United Kingdom during the 18th century and popularized during the 19th, according to the BBC. And Greek and Roman traditions associate the plant with peace and friendship.
So the next time you find yourself underneath the mistletoe, consider yourself officially prepped to explain the history behind the festive kiss. Make out, educate your make-out partner about the myth of Frigg and Baldur, and be on your merry way.
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