Victorian families in England and America decorated their homes with greenery during the Christmas holidays. Freshly harvested evergreen boughs, sprigs, and vines were transformed into wreaths, garlands, and swags, adding festive touches to doorways, windows, mantels, banisters, and chandeliers. Bringing greenery such as mistletoe, holly, and ivy into the home at this time of year may have been a legacy of the Druids, who used it to welcome wandering nature spirits seeking shelter from the cold and dark.
Mistletoe and other plants also made their way into Victorian “kissing balls” (also called “kissing boughs” or “kissing bells”). In the Victorian language of flowers, mistletoe signifies overcoming difficulties—and so perhaps explains the tradition of stealing kisses from anyone caught standing beneath it. This custom relates to the social license allowed during the holiday season, when gentlemen who managed to waltz their sweetheart under a kissing ball could publicly overcome the propriety of ladies of the day. Judging from the engravings published in magazines of that era, kissing under the mistletoe was a popular pastime.
The Victorians also took license with the plants and materials they included with the evergreens in their kissing balls. Glitter, ribbons, dried sheaves of grain, autumn leaves, bright berries, and everlasting flowers were some of the colorful materials that the popular magazine Vick’s Floral Guide (1879) recommended adding to give the kissing ball a festive look.
In my years of teaching classes on seasonal holiday decorations, I have created many kissing balls; in fact, it is my favorite Victorian custom. Traditionally, kissing balls started with an apple or potato base. I use apples and insert sprigs of herbs into them; not only are they handy and inexpensive, but the moisture in an apple keeps the herbs fresh longer. When the necessary herbs are in season, I clip them from my garden and decorate the ball with flowers, ribbon, and jingle bells.
For The Herb Companion, I created this special herbal kissing ball for a New Year’s decoration. In my area of the Midwest, nice-looking, fresh mistletoe is difficult to find, so I don’t include it, but if it grows in your area or you have a good source for fresh mistletoe, add it to the center of the kissing ball.
I chose herbs that had meaning to the Victorians. This kissing ball expresses a desire for a happy home life in the year to come: sage for domestic virtues, long life, and good health; rosemary for loyalty and fidelity; lemon geranium for gentility; boxwood for constancy in love and stoicism in the face of whatever cannot be changed; oregano thyme for happy activities, courage, and thrift; lavender for devotion, loyalty, luck, acknowledgment, and constant personal attention (my three kids are really in favor of this one); and anise hyssop for homely virtues and cleanliness.
Shape your own
I give precise instructions for this kissing ball, but the technique is infinitely adaptable. Many plants are suitable for a kissing ball, so consider these instructions just a guide. Use what you have to create your own. Harvest the material from the garden or from potted plants, or purchase them from a store that carries floral supplies or a nursery. If you want an effect similar to the one shown here, choose herbs with comparable shapes and textures, such as santolina for the rosemary, lamb’s-ears for the sage, or sweet Annie for the oregano thyme. Herbs that stay evergreen are particularly nice. Try bay, bayberry, green santolina, winter savory, ‘Berggarten’ sage, variegated sages and thymes, silver dollar eucalyptus, holly, pine, balsam fir, and English, French, and Spanish lavenders.
How about a kissing ball as party decoration or gift for a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary? Give it a silver theme by using gray-leaved herbs such as ‘Silver King’ or ‘Silver Queen’ artemisia, dusty miller cineraria, silver sage, lamb’s-ears, gray santolina, southernwood, Roman wormwood, mugwort, and borage calyxes.
Another striking effect is achieved with variegated plants and flowers to match. ‘Icterina’ golden sage with its yellow-bordered leaves would be gorgeous combined with yellow-edged holly or box and golden yarrow flowers. When substituting other varieties, keep in mind that thin woody stems like rosemary and lavender pierce the apple and anchor securely in it, whereas softer, succulent stems such as those of scented geraniums must be held in place with wire and are not likely to stay fresh as long. (There’s more about this in the directions.)
Use flowers that complement your color theme and look good either fresh or dried. Lavender, rosebuds, bee balm, yarrow flowers, anise hyssop, larkspur, tansy, and plumed celosia can all find a place in a kissing ball.
Have a ball!
Making this kissing ball takes some time, but you’ll probably find, as I do, that working with the fragrances, textures, and colors of the herbs is a pleasure. The project is actually simple to do. Once you’ve gathered or purchased the materials, allow about four hours from start to finish.
The simple tools I use to make a kissing ball include pruning shears, wire cutters, needle-nosed pliers, scissors, and a long, blunt needle (although a large, straightened paper-clip end or even a toothpick would work as well). I use an empty cardboard box at least a foot high as a stand while I’m assembling the kissing ball, and I keep a spray bottle filled with water handy to mist the herbs periodically to keep them fresh. If I’m not able to prepare all the materials at once, I keep them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
Depending on the materials you use and how dry the environment is where it hangs, the kissing ball will look good for a week or two. In dry climates, mist it regularly to keep it fresh. After it dries, if you want to keep it, you can put baby’s breath, thyme, or other additional filler into any open spaces.
Louise Gruenberg lives in Oak Park, Illinois, where she gardens, makes herbal things, and teaches classes and workshops on using herbs.