Mistletoe: Make an Herbal Holiday Kissing Ball

A holiday custom with Victorian charm.

| December/January 1996

  • Layers of fragrant herb sprigs inserted in a staggered, circular pattern give the kissing ball volume.
  • Rosemary, sage, lavender, anise hyssop, lemon geranium, oregano thyme and boxwood make this ­Victorian kissing ball an eye-catching touch for any room.

  An Herbal Holiday Kissing Ball  

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.

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