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Why Do We Kiss Under The Mistletoe?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This holiday season, we're tracing our favorite traditions back to their beginnings - today, mistletoe.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This time of the year it's all over the place - at parties, in music, in movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) You're under the mistletoe. Ooh (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Kiss her, then.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) It's mistletoe.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) It's tradition.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) It's Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Come on, idiot, kiss her.

MARTIN: That's from "While You Were Sleeping" with Sandra Bullock. But before mistletoe was a staple of holiday rom coms, it may have been an ancient aphrodisiac for livestock. Here's Becky Little, a freelance writer for National Geographic.

BECKY LITTLE: In the 1st century AD, Celtic druids were recorded mixing up mistletoe and giving it as a drink to animals because they thought that it would help with the animals' fertility. And these people also supposedly hung mistletoe over their doorways around the winter solstice because it'll stay green all winter. And it was seen as a way of warding off evil and bringing good luck.

SHAPIRO: There's also this story from Norse mythology. Thor had a grandson named Baldur, who woke up from a nightmare in which all animals and plants were trying to kill him. So his mom, Frigg, asked all the plants and animals not to harm her son, but she forgot to ask mistletoe. So the god of mischief, Loki...

ROB DUNN: Decides to make an arrow out of mistletoe. And that arrow is then shot at Baldur. And because mistletoe had been forgotten, it was the one thing that could kill him.

MARTIN: That's professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University Rob Dunn.

DUNN: And so you would hang it up. You would honor it. You would pay attention to it because if you forgot to, it might accidentally kill your next of kin.

SHAPIRO: Much later on, writers such as Washington Irving and Charles Dickens included the mistletoe mating ritual in several works, like this Irving story from 1820.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) The mistletoe, with its white berries hung up to the imminent peril of all the pretty house maids.

MARTIN: And Dickens gives us a scene in "The Pickwick Papers" in which young women...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) Screamed and struggled and ran into corners and did everything but leave the room until they all at once found it useless to resist any longer and submitted to be kissed with a good grace.

SHAPIRO: Writer Becky Little finds these stories kind of creepy.

LITTLE: Maybe not a great situation for the women. There seems to be a little bit of pressure associated with it. If you were under mistletoe and you didn't kiss, it was bad luck. So you were supposed to kiss.

MARTIN: So if you find yourself under the mistletoe this holiday season, use your best judgment, especially if you've had a lot of eggnog.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISTLETOE AND HOLLY")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Oh, by gosh, by golly, it's time for mistletoe and holly, tasty pheasants, Christmas presents, countrysides covered with snow. Oh, by gosh... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.