Bieber’s ‘Mistletoe’ Has Us Thinking: Where The Heck Did That Tradition Come From?

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By Kara Warner

All this talk about Justin Bieber‘s forthcoming holiday-themed album “Under The Mistletoe,” and our exclusive debut of the video for its first single, “Mistletoe,” has got us to thinking, where the heck did that whole kissing-under-the-mistletoe tradition start?

Here’s a quick primer of the most interesting mistletoe-themed facts:

Parasitic Plant
File this under unexpected surprises: Mistletoe is officially classified as a parasite. A parasitic plant, more specifically, in that they attach themselves to a host plant and leech off of its nutrients.

What’s In A Name?
Much like the odd fact that mistletoe is a parasite, the actual translation of its name is even more surprising and slightly unpleasant. “Mistal” is an Anglo-Saxon word that means “dung” and “tan” means “twig,” so mistletoe literally means “dung on a twig.” Also, Phoradendron, the scientific name for American mistletoe, means “thief of the tree” in Greek.

Ties That Bind
The earliest ties to the kissing at Christmas traditions harken back to the 17th century, but some theories point to tales associated with Christ and the Druids.

“One legend has it that the wood of the cross of Christ was made from mistletoe, and supposedly for that reason the mistletoe plant has been doomed to live as a parasite, and is so classified today, making it condemned to live on the goodwill of other trees.”

Kissing Games
The kissing custom, which, let’s face it, is the reason most of us know anything about mistletoe to begin with, is linked to the Greek festival Saturnalia, but also to 18th century English tradition of a kissing ball.

“At Christmas time a young lady standing under a ball of mistletoe, brightly trimmed with evergreens, ribbons, and ornaments, cannot refuse to be kissed. Such a kiss could mean deep romance or lasting friendship and goodwill. If the girl remained unkissed, she cannot expect not to marry the following year. In some parts of England the Christmas mistletoe is burned on the twelfth night lest all the boys and girls who have kissed under it never marry.”