• Some associate the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe with Norse mythology and the story of Baldur
  • Historian Mark Forsyth believes the practice started in England sometime between 1720 and 1784
  • The earliest mention of kissing under the mistletoe found by Forsyth and other historians came from a song from 1784

Mistletoes have been a constant symbol of the holidays, with the tradition of kissing still being kept alive by people who are caught standing under it. But where did this holiday tradition start and what does it mean?

Quite a number of tales have been passed on to explain the origin of the mistletoe and its romantic tradition, the most prominent of them tracing back to Norse mythology and the story of Baldur.

According to the tale, Baldur's mother, Frigg, cast powerful magic to make sure that no plant grown on Earth could be used as a weapon against her son. The one plant the spell didn't reach was the mistletoe as it does not grow out of the earth but from the branches of trees.

Upon learning of this, Loki, the god of mischief, decided to make an arrow made out of mistletoe — the weapon that would eventually kill Baldur. In many tellings, Frigg declared the mistletoe to be a symbol of love after her son's death and promised protection for anyone who passed underneath the plant through a kiss.

If the tale is accurate, then it would clearly explain the romantic tradition that comes with the mistletoe today. However, historian Mark Forsyth begs to differ.

“Baldur’s death involves mistletoe, but it’s got nothing to do with kissing or Christmas,” the author of “A Christmas Cornucopia: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Yuletide Traditions” told Time.

Although he has not been able to determine why kissing under the mistletoe started, Forsyth suggested that the tradition may have begun in England sometime between 1720 and 1784.

The historian noted that kissing underneath the mistletoe couldn't have been popular before 1720 because the most extensive research about the plant was released that year, and it did not make any mention of the practice.

"He had a whole section on superstitions and customs associated with mistletoe, and doesn’t mention anything at all about kissing under mistletoe,” Forsyth said of the two books written by John Colbatch in 1719.

Instead, the earliest reference to kissing under the mistletoe found by Forsyth and other historians came from a song from 1784. “What all the men, Jem, John, and Joe/Cry, ‘What good-luck has sent ye?’/And kiss beneath the mistletoe/The girl not turn’d of twenty,” its lyrics said.

What happened between 1720 and 1784 that made kissing under the mistletoe such a big deal remains unknown, but Forsyth concluded that the song was probably a lighthearted jest that spread quickly among men and women.

“I can take a pretty shrewd guess that it involved a particularly lusty and inventive boy, and a particularly gullible girl," Forsyth wrote in his book.

The mistletoe is a parasitic green plant that grows on trees and shrubs and can be found around the world. Many ancient groups associated the plant with fertility and veracity, with some even considering it an aphrodisiac.

Mistletoe and Menorahs
Catch a repeat airing of the 2019 holiday film “Mistletoe & Menorahs.” Lifetime