December 2008

The History of Mistletoe "How kissing went out on a limb"

Author: Craig Hysell

A good smooch depends on a fascinating number of things. Did you know two-thirds of people tilt their heads to the right when they kiss? Scientists believe this stems from the way we hold our heads in the womb—but the top three, generally speaking, are probably in the realm of 1. Do I like the person kissing me? 2. Do they smell good? 3. Do they know how to give a proper kiss?

At Christmas time (or Hanukkah time, or Boxing Day time, or Kwanzaa time or whatever December time you happen to be celebrating this year), another factor sneaks up on the kiss: Is there some mistletoe around? The long history of the mistletoe is steeped in science, mystery, legend and folklore, the compilation of which is either borderline disgusting or laugh-out-loud ironic and quite interesting any way you slice it. But we’ll get to that in a second; first to the sexy stuff…

The basic kiss (let’s keep the make-out session PG) relies on the obicularis oris, which is the muscle that runs around the outside of your mouth. The obicularis oris changes the shape of your mouth while you talk and helps you pucker those lips. About nine other facial muscles help—13 if you use your tongue (and get on Santa’s naughty list). Your facial nerve sends electrical impulses from your face to your brain to relay what’s going on. Your brain produces oxytocin, which develops feelings of attachment, devotion and affection; dopamine which helps the brain process emotions, pleasure and pain; serotonin which affects mood and feelings; and adrenaline which increases heart rate.

Locking lips flushes these hormones and neurotransmitters through your body and, coupled with natural endorphins, produces euphoria. Your blood vessels also dilate as your heart rate increases, so your body receives more oxygen than when you were just standing around not kissing. Researchers have also proven that women prefer men with different immune system proteins than their own. They believe women may be able to smell these proteins when kissing, and this may affect whether she finds her partner attractive or not. (One can only hope this theory can gain some legs and end The Axe Body Spray Invasion of the early 21st century…)

So, what’s this got to do with the holiday tradition of kissing under the mistletoe? Well, now that you understand the physiology of the situation—the couple is simply having a face workout and she likes the smell of his immune system proteins—you can also point out to your friends the irony that they are kissing romantically under a parasitic, poisonous plant named after bird poop.

In Norse mythology, mistletoe was held in awe, particularly because it stayed green in the winter while the trees it grew on did not. That’s because mistletoe is mostly hemiparasitical and sends a special kind of root system called haustoria down into its host trees in order to extract their nutrients. When Scandinavian warriors met under the mistletoe, they laid down their arms and kept a truce until the following day. The Norse goddess, Frigga, also declared the plant sacred. People celebrating her son, Baldur’s, resurrection would kiss under it to recognize the plant as a symbol of love.

Celtic Druids didn’t give a Frigga care about Norse mythology, thinking such things were balderdash. They considered mistletoe a sacred plant with supernatural powers. Later, Washington Irving described kissing under the mistletoe in Christmas Eve. Irving wrote that young men had the privilege of kissing girls under the hanging mistletoe, but had to pluck a berry each time they did so. Once all the berries were gone—which are poisonous to humans—no more magic could happen under the mistletoe. In 1921, Switzerland researchers created Iscador out of mistletoe, an alternative drug treatment for malignant cancer later made popular by Suzanne Somers. In the right dosage mistletoe is thought to relax the body, aid the immune system and strengthen heartbeat. (Maybe the Druids were on to something…) In the wrong dosages, mistletoe is quite toxic.

As for its name, ancient Europeans noticed that mistletoe would blossom where the “mistel” or “missel” thrush bird defecated. Sara Williams writes, “It was observed in ancient times that mistletoe would often appear on a branch or a twig where birds had left droppings. ‘Mistel’ is the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘dung’ and ‘tan’ is the word for ‘twig’. So, mistletoe means ‘dung-on-a-twig’.” By the sixteenth century, botanists had realized mistletoe was indeed spread by seeds which passed through the digestive tract of birds.

So, there you have it. Take a little bit of legend, add a little bit of science, a little bit of folklore, splash with some misunderstanding and mix in any excuse to make your partner, or a stranger, get up in your business with their immune system proteins, and the mistletoe tradition is solved. The rest, as they say, is kisstory.

Let Us Know what You Think ...

commenting closed for this article