"Beneath the Mistletoe: The Endnotes" Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

Welcome to the Endnotes, where I put all the fun facts I can’t fit into the main videos! Today, some extra bits of information from my video about Feast — and if you haven’t seen that yet, click on the card.

In that video, we mentioned some Celtic rituals that take place around midwinter, so on that topic we get the somewhat confused connection between the Druids, mistletoe, and midwinter from the Roman writer Pliny, who recorded that the Gauls used mistletoe as an antidote to poison and as a fertility inducer to livestock, and that the Druids regarded it as especially sacred when it was found growing on an oak tree, rather than the more usual apple tree (the word Druid is etymologically connected to the word tree), and so there was a special ritual for collecting this super mistletoe, that involved special animal sacrifices and feasting. You can see therefore the connection between the fertility inducing mistletoe and this time of renewal, and why it might be hung up as a special symbol around the solstice and turning of the year. But it might simply be that mistletoe is another example of a plant that stays green in the winter like holly and conifers. As for the kissing part, it might simply be connected to the fertility association of the plant, but there’s another more Christian explanation. It was the custom in 14th century Britain to hang a small effigy of the Holy Family just inside the entrance to a house, decorated with some form of greenery, holly or mistletoe, whatever was available. The Holy Family was later removed as being possibly idolatrous, leaving only the mistletoe under which people entering the house would naturally greet each other. After a while the greeting of Christian love gradually turned into, shall we say, less than holy kissing, and so the tradition evolved into removing one of the berries from the sprig of mistletoe with each kiss, and once the berries were gone the kissing had to stop. And as a final point, since it’s become the tradition now for me to ruin Christmas with a lascivious or crude Christmas etymology or story, I’ll point out that the etymology of mistletoe consists of the second element Old English tan meaning “twig” and first element Old English mistel meaning itself “mistletoe” but going back to the Proto-Indo-European root *meigh- “to urinate” or in the case of birds “to defecate” because the mistletoe seeds are propagated through bird droppings. So next time you’re kissing under the mistletoe, remember that you’re actually kissing under a poop-twig!

As always, you can hear even more etymology and history, as well as interviews with a wide range of fascinating people, on the Endless Knot Podcast, available on all the major podcast platforms as well as our other YouTube channel. Thanks for watching!