Pucker-up!

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After picking out a tree, hanging all the keepsake ornaments, stringing up the lights, and remembering how to hang a wreath on the door, some families have one more Christmas tradition—hanging the mistletoe. That pesky little plant dangles from doorways and arches and anyone who finds themselves under it may find themselves puckering up for a Christmas kiss.

It's one of those funny Christmas traditions that is endearing for young couples and awkward if you end up under the mistletoe with your best friend's mama. But why do mostly sane folks find themselves doing a parasitic plant's bidding come the holidays? When did standing under mistletoe become a direct order to pucker up? Well that's an interesting story that involves Druids, Romans, Norse mythology.

Out in nature, mistletoe is a parasitic plant that clings to other trees and feeds off of them. While some may view that parasitic relationship as almost romantic, that's not the reason that mistletoe earned its kissing reputation. According to Slate, the first person to become aware of mistletoe's romantic powers were the Druids who wandered Europe in the 1st Century A.D. They believed that "mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart fecundity to all animals that are barren." (To spare you the Google, "fecundity" means "fertility".) Druids would reportedly hang the plant over their doors for luck. Historians learned about mistletoe's romantic reputation through a man known as Pliny the Elder, a Roman who was one of the world's first known naturalists. He thought the Druids' beliefs about mistletoe were silly, but the reputation stuck thanks in part to a Norse myth.

The story involved Frigga, the goddess of love and marriage, who loved her son Baldur so much that she and Baldur's wife teamed up to make all the world's plants and animals to promise not to hurt him. Well, they got all the plants, except mistletoe. Loki, the god of mischief who Marvel fans will recognize as Thor's pesky brother, realized the mistake and made a spear out of mistletoe and killed Baldur. If it ended there, it wouldn't be a particularly sweet story, but in some versions of the tale, as Frigga cried over the loss of her son, her motherly tears turned into mistletoe berries. Those berries somehow brought Baldur back to life, so Frigga declared mistletoe to be a symbol of love. According to The Smithsonian magazine, "Mistletoe would come to hang over our doors as a reminder to never forget. We kiss beneath it to remember what Baldur's wife and mother forgot."

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But at Christmas, mistletoe isn't just a sign of motherly love, but a symbol of romance. According to Fox News, that started sometime in the 18th century. British servants, perhaps inspired by Druid lore, decided that stealing a kiss beneath the mistletoe was appropriate. It soon spread to others eager for an opportunity to steal a kiss. It eventually earned mentions in literature, a sure sign of something becoming a common practice. Washington Irving wrote about mistletoe at Christmas in an 1820 story, and Charles Dickens mentioned the practice of smooching under the plant in his 1836 book, The Pickwick Papers.

According to the tradition, it's bad luck to refuse a kiss beneath the mistletoe, but it's a worse idea to eat the berries as many varieties are poisonous. That said, it's a sweet tradition with roots, so, will you be hanging mistletoe this year?

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