The history of the Christmas kissing ball is an interesting glimpse into the past. What is a kissing ball? Why do people still hang them in their homes?
The History of the Christmas Kissing Ball
Have you ever seen a Christmas kissing ball? These decorated balls of evergreens, holly and herbs hang over doorways. Sometimes they’re adorned with sprigs of mistletoe – an invitation to be kissed! Where did this strange custom originate, and does it have any symbolism or meaning?
Origins of the Christmas Kissing Ball
Many Christmas traditions have been handed down to us from the Middle Ages, when the holiday of Christmas became more important than it had ever been. It was during the Middle Ages that St. Francis of Assisi came up with the idea of the Nativity scene, using animals and villagers to re-enact the story of Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem, which were eventually replaced by the ceramic, plaster and plastic figures we know today. Many Christmas Carols – O Come All Ye Faithful, What Child Is This – originated in the Middle Ages, and although the words may have changed slightly, a time traveler speeding back to the 13th,14th, or 15th centuries would be able to join the sing-along at Christmas Mass.
The kissing ball comes to us from that time, too. During the Middle Ages, villagers would wind together twine and evergreen branches into a ramshackle ball shape. In the center of this conglomeration of evergreen boughs they would place a clay figure of an infant to represent the baby Jesus. These “holy boughs”, as they were called, would be hung from the ceiling along passageways in castles and big houses to render blessings and good luck to all who passed under the bough and the holy infant.
During the 17th through early 19th centuries, such decorations were frowned up. The Puritans, the Reformation and all the new religious fervor sweeping England and Europe meant cleansing away all the decorations of Christmas. But people will be people, and people yearn for decorations and symbolism. By the time Queen Victoria ruled England, decorations were making a comeback.
Many of our Christmas traditions date back to Queen Victoria, such as the Christmas tree. Her husband Albert was from Germany, and the Germans had long kept the custom of evergreen trees decorated to symbolism eternal life and the return of the sun. During the Victorian era, the concept of the kissing ball or holy bough came back but in a different form. People would take a potato or apple and tie a pretty ribbon around it as a hanger. Then they would stick sprigs of evergreen, holly and sweet herbs into the potato or apple until it bristled with them. The resulting “sweet ball” not only looked beautiful, it smelled good too, which was a plus in the days before daily showers!
The herbs in the sweet ball took on the highly romanticized symbolism common to the Victorian area. Herbs and plants spoke a unique and private symbolic language to Victorians. The choice of herbs, flowers and boughs could state love, affection, charity, piety and more.
By the end of the 19th century, the kissing ball now symbolized romantic love. It wasn’t uncommon to find ballrooms adorned with dozens of decorated kissing balls hanging from the ceiling. One custom had a kissing ball with a sprig of mistletoe hanging from it. This ball would be hung up in a special place at a party. Unmarried maidens would line up and stand underneath, and the unmarried men would line up to kiss the ladies!
As the 20th century unfurled, kissing balls fell out of favor. Only the mistletoe remained as a symbol of love and romance. But some traditionalists still love the lore, the mysterious and the romance of this very traditional Christmas decoration.
So here’s to the kissing ball….SMOOCHES! xoxox
Where to Find Kissing Balls
Kissing balls have made a comeback. You can buy them at many greenhouses and upscale garden centers nationwide. Plastic ones that can be used year after year may even be available at Walmart, K Mart and other stores. Martha Stewart provides directions on her website for making kissing balls; I’ve included the link, below, along with other links for you to learn more about this custom and make your own.
Jeanne Grunert is a certified Virginia Master Gardener and the author of several gardening books. Her garden articles, photographs, and interviews have been featured in The Herb Companion, Virginia Gardener, and Cultivate, the magazine of the National Farm Bureau. She is the founder of The Christian Herbalists group and a popular local lecturer on culinary herbs and herbs for health, raised bed gardening, and horticulture therapy.