Here’s the odd, sad truth about mistletoe. Plus, is the kissing custom a mystery?

If you celebrate Christmas, it’s likely that at some point this season you’ll find yourself puckering up under a mistletoe branch. What is the tradition of kissing under a plant all about? And does the name have anything to do with human toes?

Mistletoe is a European plant that grows parasitically on trees. The etymology of the word is uncertain. Because mistletoe can be spread through birds’ feces, it is possible that it comes from the German mist, which means “dung,” and tang, which means “branch.” (Hence, there is no connection between the toes on your feet and the plant hanging above your head.)

The parasite is used to decorate homes during Christmas. When two people meet under a hanging of mistletoe, it is customary to smooch. The origin of this tradition is also shrouded in uncertainty, but one of the first descriptions comes from a book by Washington Irving published in 1820. And historically, mistletoe represents romance, fertility, and vitality.

Now, let’s move on to the darker side of mistletoe. In Norse mythology, the plant plays a key part in a story with a violent conclusion; the god Balder is killed by his blind brother Hoor with, of all things, a mistletoe projectile.

Also, in South Africa “bird lime,” or a juice made from mistletoe berries, is used as an adhesive to trap small birds. Coils of the sticky substance are placed on tree branches. When birds land on them, they get stuck. The birds can then be caught by hand.

Here’s one more redemptive aspect of the plant. According to the National Cancer Institute, mistletoe is one of the most widely used alternative medicine therapies for people with cancer.


  1. Shane -  October 3, 2013 - 6:43 am

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  2. Mike -  March 21, 2012 - 1:19 am

    “A broad array of animals depend on mistletoe for food, consuming the leaves and young shoots, transferring pollen between plants, and dispersing the sticky seeds. The dense evergreen witches’ brooms formed by the dwarf mistletoes ( Arceuthobium species) of western North America also make excellent locations for roosting and nesting of the Northern Spotted Owls and the Marbled Murrelets. In Australia the Diamond Firetails and Painted Honeyeaters are recorded as nesting in different mistletoes. This behavior is probably far more widespread than currently recognized; more than 240 species of birds that nest in foliage in Australia have been recorded nesting in mistletoe, representing more than 75% of the resident avifauna.”

    – Reference.com

  3. Christopher -  December 15, 2011 - 10:11 pm

    @Stacy Larson It’s called Justin Bieber.

  4. Christopher -  December 15, 2011 - 9:55 pm

    “Because mistletoe can be spread through birds’ feces,”
    Made me puke right there.

  5. mistletoe hater -  January 6, 2011 - 4:57 pm

    i never knew that would be so…….awful. i never knew that plus i always hated mistletoe!

  6. Ellie -  January 1, 2011 - 8:20 pm

    So, I guess you could say Balder was killed with a “missile-toe?”

  7. UGH -  December 23, 2010 - 6:46 pm

    Get off sherry’s back lol geez ppl! Bunch of losers! Did it occur that she may have made a mistake?

  8. CBV -  December 23, 2010 - 12:12 pm

    the most widely USED alternative

  9. ron -  December 23, 2010 - 8:48 am

    Mistletoe was considered sacred by certain Germanic tribes, in pre-Christian times, because of its relationship with the oak tree.

    At that time, the mistletoe was not known to be a parasite (it can eventually be fatal for the host tree). What was “known” was that once each year, as winter approached, the oak tree died. However the mistletoe wrapped around it stayed green and flourished through the “dead” of winter, and it became the temporary home of the oak tree’s soul. Then, in the spring, the tree’s soul returned from its temporary exile and re-entered the tree, and the tree was resurrected.

    Accordingly, the mistletoe and its role were ready-made symbols for these pagan believers when they ultimately adopted Christianity, in which the concept of resurrection also plays a significant role.

    This account of mistletoe’s symbolism is from “The Golden Bough”, a study of ancient pagan religions by Sir James George Frazer, published over a century ago. It’s a scholarly work with a lot of information, but it is very dry reading.

  10. Mad Elf -  December 23, 2010 - 5:54 am


    > Why is everyone so concerned about Sherry’s comment/question

    Because yet again a Christian has commented on a post, not with anything actually on-topic, but with an attempt at proselytisation. And that’s like waving raw steak in front of the starving lion pride that is the Internet’s non-Christian population.

    > and why is no one paying attention to the fact that it’s already been answered by a number of other people.

    Lag? Attempts to jump on the bandwagon? Me-too-ism? All hungry lions must get a bite!

    Note that there are at least as many people jumping down the throat of the “medicinal” claim…

    On-topic: not very impressed with this article. Not very well-written, and hardly informative: the only bit new to me was the use as a (claimed) cancer cure, and there’s a lot more to say (as added in the comments) about the history and mythology of the plant. (One not mentioned: the little white berries are droplets of the Oak King’s semen…)

  11. cc -  December 22, 2010 - 11:24 pm

    The only time I remember being kissed under the mistletoe was by my boss many years ago when I was a pretty blonde in my 20′s. That would be considered sexual harrassment now. Too bad because even though I blushed (yes, I know girls don’t blush any more, do they?) he was a great kisser!!!

  12. @...@ -  December 22, 2010 - 9:00 pm

    waste of time…and another time wasted saying that this is a waste of time..

  13. JG -  December 22, 2010 - 7:16 pm

    love kissin’ under the mistletoe and I don’t worry about any meaning behind the misteltoe, just another good excuse for a smooch…And Stacy Larson this is for you XXXOOOXXX. Shame on all of you who got on your soap box for something so trivial. Find a bigger problem.
    Merry Christmas.
    – ##
    /___\ #####
    ( 0 > < 0 )#
    | * * ##
    | ) \ |

  14. MJ (not michael jackson, these are my initials too) -  December 22, 2010 - 4:46 pm

    Yeah, I agree with David…
    and the 25th of December isn’t Jesus’s birthday, deathday, anniversary…it originally wasn’t called “Christ-mas”. And hardly anything about Christmas is related to Jesus anyway. It’s actually a druid festival and the trees are supposed to represent the forest. I don’t remember what it was originally called, though. Snowmen were also a part of the nature-worship theme…they were winter spirits. Gifts were originally given to the druid priests. They were put under the tree to be blessed. Mistletoe was also sacred to druids, because the oak tree, the most sacred tree of all, was the mistletoe’s dinner.
    The druids also used pine trees outdoors, and pines were used because it was said in ancient legends that pines were where spirits landed. Oaks were for some reason, not as popular. So, Sherry, to answer your question, it has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus.

  15. ...... -  December 22, 2010 - 3:36 pm

    this was a waste of database storage
    who authorized this to be posted

  16. Hoodaloo -  December 22, 2010 - 3:16 pm

    Now we just need a cure for death and we win.

  17. a nonny mouse -  December 22, 2010 - 3:04 pm

    Nothing about Christmas has anything to do with Jesus. Like others have already mentioned, it’s all from various pagan traditions that were adopted by apostate Christendom to make it easier to convert pagans

  18. Vegtam -  December 22, 2010 - 2:47 pm

    Balder’s brother’s name is Hod or Hodr, never Hoor.

  19. Kate -  December 22, 2010 - 1:59 pm

    That’s how we have managed to proceed from mistletoe, through cancer, Jesus.. and back to kissing. By the way, Christ was born on December 24th, and that’s when we start celebrating Christmas in my country.

  20. Cat -  December 22, 2010 - 1:58 pm

    Boring or not, it is completely irresponsible to name mistletoe as a “medicine” (true or not) without also mentioning that it is extremely poisonous even in small amounts. Every year around this time there are several reported pet deaths and numbers of small children ending up in emergency rooms after ingesting the berries or pieces of leaves. While it is true that many otherwise poisonous substances are also used medicinally, they are administered under professional supervision after being carefully processed, treated, purified and their strength/concentration carefully controlled. Don’t go out and start using mistletoe as self-treatment for anything.

  21. Born again Pagan -  December 22, 2010 - 1:47 pm

    The Mistletoe is/was a sacred plant in the pagan religion. Sacred because it did not grow out of the ground and sacred because it grew out of the Oak tree – considered the most wisest of all trees. Mistletoe was believed to have all sorts of miraculous qualities: the power of healing diseases, making poisons harmless, protecting from witchcraft, banning evil spirits, bringing good luck and great blessings. In fact, it was considered so sacred that even enemies who happened to meet beneath a Mistletoe in the forest would lay down their arms, exchange a friendly greeting, and keep a truce until the following day. From this old custom grew the practice of suspending Mistletoe over a doorway or in a room as a token of good will and peace to all comers. It’s white berries were the symbol of purity and some believed gave fertility to humans and animals. This one particular fact may have contributed to the now common practice of kissing under the Mistletoe. For more info: http://www.blackhillscelticevents.org/Events/CelticMistle.htm

  22. Scott -  December 22, 2010 - 1:42 pm

    Why is everyone so concerned about Sherry’s comment/question and why is no one paying attention to the fact that it’s already been answered by a number of other people. I’m sure there are only a small number of people who believe that Christmas has anything to do with Christ in anything but a symbolical way, but even if that is her belief what concern is it of yours?

    It was a very nice, quick article shedding a little light on a subject most people probably know little to nothing about, though I agree that the title was a little misleading…

  23. allikaboooboo -  December 22, 2010 - 1:34 pm

    thats the meaning for real? nah uz is playin.

  24. Chickie Baby -  December 22, 2010 - 1:18 pm

    Mistletoe is also the “official floral emblem” (not flower, mind you) of the state of Oklahoma, which is what I’m reminded of when I see a picture of the plant. Nothing about Christmas springs to mind. Such an odd choice. (And yes, it does grow quite well in the trees throughout Oklahoma and Arkansas.)

  25. Cyberquill -  December 22, 2010 - 12:31 pm

    Tang means branch in what language? And I see no relation between tang and toe whatsoever. Toe might as well derive from technology.

  26. gokylebusch -  December 22, 2010 - 12:06 pm

    @nyliemonster, I agree wholeheartedly with you.

  27. Luna Lovegood -  December 22, 2010 - 11:38 am

    Mistletoe is often infested with nargles. Seriously. So stay away!

  28. calypso -  December 22, 2010 - 11:34 am

    agree with nyliemonster.

  29. Leo -  December 22, 2010 - 11:23 am

    I felt that it was weak and really lacked flow. Especially at the small bit of Norse mythology. I actually had to pause ask “what?”, only to be left with no further details or explanation.

  30. Watson -  December 22, 2010 - 11:21 am

    Mistletoe was also supposedly the most sacred plant of the ancient celts and their druids, especially when it grew on an oak.

  31. Give Sherry a break! -  December 22, 2010 - 11:17 am

    I guess Sherry got the idea it might have something to do with Jesus, because the article mentioned ‘celebrating Christmas’… ‘His’ birthday! Even customs that pre-date His birth, have some meaning to us Christians today. The evergreen tree, (eternal life), lights, (Jesus is the light of the world), etc. (I like Linda’s comment that mistletoe “… was considered a miracle that it could live in the harsh conditions of winter – – – when everything else was viewed as dead rather than dormant.
    One thing to consider with the above information is that even in harsh conditions in what seem to be bleak times in our lives, Christ – – like the mistletoe – – – is there to brighten our circumstances.” ~ Linda) God has a purpose for everything He created,(mistletoe), and commanded… like “Love one another”. Seems to me, mistletoe helps us do just that! ;0) ~ Merry CHRISTmas, Everybody!

  32. mike -  December 22, 2010 - 11:15 am

    So adbi

    delusional people believe in homeopathy?

    Good call considering that everything in the pharmaceutical industry is made with derivatives of natural occurring life forms.

    and also considering that the Cancer industry is running rampant with solutions that actually kill just as many people as cancer does when its untreated.

    in case you forgot your roots… we come from a species that at one time was dependent on plant life to keep our bodies strong and powerful. only to evolve into glutinous, greed filled, ego maniacs that cant stop eating garbage, while big business pumps us full of chemicals that change our genetics for the worse, for ever!!!

    here’s homeopathic for you – Cancer has been cured by several different methods, the best of which is: stop eating animal protein and fungus based foods, such as dairy and bread. If you’re so trusting in the Cancer industry then ask yourself why is it so important to find a cure that costs the patient money? need someone to explain????

    Because they are a profit based corporate giant, why would they promote the cure?

    feel smart now? just think people like you are voting.

  33. Mr. Aphasia -  December 22, 2010 - 10:52 am

    It’s technically true that Hoor killed Balder, but really it was Loki who gave Hoor the mistletoe spear. Mistletoe was the only thing that could hurt Balder. Basically, Hoor didn’t mean to do it.

  34. Jonathan -  December 22, 2010 - 10:16 am

    I want to pretend internet rage against something I could have ignored so people will think I am smarter and not living in mommy’s basement.

    Plus I pwnd yo all in COD6 – U SUX!

  35. Justin -  December 22, 2010 - 9:55 am

    @ Ray Thompson … lol, nice.

  36. Justin -  December 22, 2010 - 9:51 am

    Well, I for one enjoyed the article. So, phhhht.

  37. Anonymous -  December 22, 2010 - 9:45 am

    Why do we have so many wordly traditions at Christmas time? It’s supposed to be about Jesus.

  38. Abadaxis -  December 22, 2010 - 9:43 am

    >>In Norse mythology, the plant plays a key part in a story with a violent conclusion; the god Balder is killed by his blind brother Hoor with, of all things, a mistletoe projectile.

    Not “Hoor” – the name was Hodr or Hothr (umlaut over o).

    Also, most of this info is straight out of Wikipedia, but I still think you should credit the source.

  39. Latin Kisser -  December 22, 2010 - 9:38 am

    So, There something more about the kisses? tongue is allowed? you must reach out your hands during the kiss? How much time? Kissers Age? Must be spontaneous? I ´ll really appreciate that you can clear my doubts.

  40. GrayKat -  December 22, 2010 - 9:20 am

    Sherry, dear, what do evergreen trees, bright lights, children getting presents from a strange man, feasting on meat, et. al. “have to do with Jesus”? (Hint: they are of pre-Christian origin.) And a joyous solstice to you, by the way.

  41. renee -  December 22, 2010 - 9:18 am

    i didnt knw about tht.. but the custom of smooching under mistletoe was really good to know..! its so romantic..!!

  42. Anonymous -  December 22, 2010 - 9:02 am

    @sherry Where does this article say anything about mistletoe having something to do with Jesus? Everyone knows that Christmas is celebrated near the day of the winter solstice, and Mithras’s birthday. So, of course there are going to be traditions that are holdovers from previous holiday celebrations on Christmas. Do you have a Christmas tree? Do you hang stockings over your fire place? Do you build snowmen? None of these things have to do with Jesus, and yet are all things done at Christmas time. PS – it’s unlikely that Jesus was born in the winter at all, most historians believe it’s more likely he was born in the spring. It was only in order to compete with other religions that Christmas was placed where it was by the early church.

  43. Scott -  December 22, 2010 - 8:38 am

    It may be widely used, but does it work better than a placebo in double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled studies? Remember, bleeding was once widely-used. Efficacy matters!

  44. Sarah -  December 22, 2010 - 8:01 am

    Sherry, a lot of traditions associated with Christmas have nothing to do with Christ. Sooooo try expanding your mind a bit.

  45. Apher Son -  December 22, 2010 - 7:52 am

    That was kind of interesting, but not very. Also, I was kind of expecting something, like, HORRIBLE about mistletoe- not it being a way for Africans to get food.

  46. isaac -  December 22, 2010 - 7:51 am

    so how did that get in the us

  47. Lynda -  December 22, 2010 - 7:48 am

    There are two sides to every story. In Ace Collins’ book entitled “25 Days, 26 Ways to Make This Your Best Christmas Ever”, he tells the more honorable origin of mistletoe. Even though mistletoe is a leech, before science it was considered a miracle that it could live in the harsh conditions of winter – - – when everything else was viewed as dead rather than dormant. There are many more noble characteristics associated with it if you care to read his book. One thing to consider with the above information is that even in harsh conditions in what seem to be bleak times in our lives, Christ – - like the mistletoe – - – is there to brighten our circumstances.

  48. Ray Thompson -  December 22, 2010 - 7:42 am

    Love my mistletoe belt buckle.

  49. stellar -  December 22, 2010 - 7:37 am

    @Sherry…there were no claims made about any connection to Jesus whatsoever, nor evidence that there should be. Perhaps you mistakenly commented on the wrong article?

  50. anon -  December 22, 2010 - 7:24 am

    i really like that the article is short, informative and actually delivers on its title. who has all day to read a 1500 page desertation on a plant? to whoever wrote this, rock on! i like it very much :)

  51. david -  December 22, 2010 - 7:23 am

    Why is mistletoe filled with Nargles?

  52. Wade -  December 22, 2010 - 7:06 am

    I grew up in Arkansas and mistletoe was common to see in the trees. It only grew in deciduous trees so the parasite wasn’t really visible until all the leaves were gone. That’s possibly how it got associated with the christmas season. Also it seems to be an evergreen which could also cause it to be associated with thoughts and customs of eternity. I’ve never seen it grow in a pine tree.

    Any custom that earns someone a bit of pocket change isn’t a stupid custom. Children sometimes sell branches of it during Christmas in front of supermarkets and busy areas. I never did but I knocked it out of trees with a stick or shot it down with my BB gun then gave it away in the neighborhood.

  53. MISTLETOE | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  December 22, 2010 - 7:01 am

    [...] saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus” underneath the Mistletoe last night. — And the very next day at Busha’s house we got kisses from our beautiful [...]

  54. Brian -  December 22, 2010 - 6:41 am

    Sherri, mistletoe has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus anymore than Christmas, Santa Claus, exchanging gifts, Christmas trees, reindeers or labeling the 25th of December as the date of his birth. If anyone wants to snog under mistletoe, let them do it…but it shouldn’t be attached to anything to do with Jesus.

  55. Amanda -  December 22, 2010 - 6:39 am

    Totally agree with adbi there. It’s nice to see an intelligent remark on the web for a change.

  56. lynn -  December 22, 2010 - 6:39 am

    why does it have to have anything to do with Jesus? Folklore is what it is – Jesus doesn’t happen to have a “part” in this one.

  57. Stacy Larson -  December 22, 2010 - 6:34 am

    The birds getting trapped or stuck makes sense to me if you kiss someone under the mistletoe and you instantly fall in love your stuck. Interesting enough I would kiss under a mistletoe if and when given the chance. My 6 year old daughter has already learned that you kiss under the mistloetoe and I have no idea where she picked it up for I haven’t been kissed for a while now.

  58. starr -  December 22, 2010 - 5:48 am

    Its good to learn new things. I really didnt care about the mistletoe–but saw the headline and decided to read it. Ive heard the folklore about it. I dont use it. But, its always good to learn. This was a good, short detail to learn and to pass it on–for the rest of friends and family who dont know and missed reading this sedment.

  59. sherry -  December 22, 2010 - 2:44 am

    sooooo what does that have to do with Jesus?

  60. adbi -  December 22, 2010 - 2:05 am

    I think you’re missing ‘used’ after widely in the last sentence.

    Also, that shouldn’t really count as a redemptive aspect unless it’s been proven to be effective in any way. I wouldn’t consider it a positive aspect of water that some delusional people believe in homeopathy. But that’s just me.

  61. nyliemonster -  December 22, 2010 - 1:47 am

    I think you should change the title. I expected something very shocking which turned out to be very disorganized, brief and lame.

  62. Sarah -  December 22, 2010 - 1:29 am

    The most widely alternative?


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