Question: At Christmas time, why do people kiss under the mistletoe? (Asked by a curious young observer.)
Reply: First some important mistletoe facts. Kissing under the mistletoe is OK, but eating it is not. Mistletoe can be poisonous. There are several such species of the plant, and how poisonous it is depends on the type and what part you eat. Ingestion can cause nausea, abdominal pain and even death.
The American mistletoe is most often used for decorations at Christmas. It has greenish-yellow leaves and sticky white berries that appear in the fall. Although poisonous to people, some birds, insects, squirrels and so on, use mistletoe as food and nesting places. The sticky seeds are often carried on bird beaks, feathers or animal fur that spreads the plant to a new host.
In general, mistletoe grows high in trees. It is a partial parasite, using its roots to penetrate a branch or trunk of a tree to absorb nutrients. Legend has it that the mistletoe was once a tree and was used to make the cross for Jesus’ crucifixion. As punishment for being involved, the plant was forbidden to grow out of the earth and demoted to a tree parasite.
The custom of decorating houses with mistletoe at Christmas appears to come from a Druid tradition of using mistletoe to celebrate the winter solstice. In the Middle Ages, branches of mistletoe were hung over a door or from the ceiling to ward off evil spirits. Along the way, kissing under the mistletoe became associated with courtship. According to tradition, one berry should be removed after each kiss. When all the berries are gone, no more kissing.
Nowadays, the berry-plucking part has been pretty much forgotten, and a person standing under the mistletoe gets (or wants to get) kissed. That eliminated the plucking of poisonous berries, and moreover, the mistletoe sprigs hung today are usually artificial.
C.P.S. (Curious Postscript): If you are ever in doubt as to whether to kiss a pretty girl, always give her the benefit of the doubt. —Thomas Carlyle
Curious about something? Send your questions to Dr. Jerry D. Wilson, College of Science and Mathematics, Lander University, Greenwood, SC 29649, or for e-mail, www.curiosity-corner.net. Selected questions will appear in the Curiosity Corner. © JDW