Mistletoe: Everyone’s favourite festive wingman or a nasty parasite to avoid?

By Charlie Sawyer

Updated Nov 21, 2022 at 12:24 PM

Reading time: 2 minutes

Mistletoe has long been associated with smooches under the porch and kisses in the grotto. This Christmas season, however, we’re here to deliver some slightly less seductive news. The renowned plant may appear harmless, but in reality, it’s a resilient little parasitic organism that might be out to get you.

Normally, our knowledge surrounding mistletoe doesn’t stray much further from the classic kissing Yuletide tradition, but today we’re here to give you a much more extensive overview of this puckered up plant.

What actually is mistletoe?

Mistletoe, despite masquerading as a bunch of glistening white berries and lush green leaves, is in fact a parasitic plant (hemiparasitic, if we’re being specific) that lives off of the nutrients and water it smuggles from its host tree. And while the plant won’t always kill the tree, it can significantly weaken it, feeding off the host for as long as it can—if that’s not a metaphor, I don’t know what is.

What’s worse is that, if the mistletoe spreads profusely, the tree will eventually die, one limb at a time, as the life is literally sucked out of it. However, mistletoe doesn’t take out whole forests like some diseases—just a tree here and there. So, unless you’re made of bark and branches, you should be safe to continue smooching nearby.

Why do people kiss under the mistletoe?

According to folklore—which these days translates to the internet—Frigga (also sometimes spelt Freya or Freyja), the Norse goddess of love, had a son named Balder, who was the god of innocence and light. To protect him, Frigga demanded that all creatures—even inanimate objects—swear an oath not to harm him, but she forgot to include mistletoe. This turned out to be a huge oversight as Loki, the god of evil and destruction, learned of this loophole and made an arrow from a sprig of the parasitic plant.

He then tricked Hoth, Balder’s blind brother, into shooting the mistletoe arrow and guided it to kill Balder. The death of Balder meant the death of sunlight—an ancient explanation for the long winter nights in the North.

Frigga’s tears fell onto the mistletoe and turned into white berries. She then decreed that it should never cause harm again but should promote love and peace instead. From then on, anyone standing under mistletoe would be bestowed with a kiss. Even mortal enemies meeting under mistletoe by accident had to put their weapons aside and exchange a kiss of peace, declaring a truce for the day.

So, it turns out that there’s actually quite a unique history behind this fabled tradition. But I probably wouldn’t recommend attempting to retell this story while standing underneath some mistletoe—might kill the vibe when you’re in for some smooches.

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