The Complicated and Chaotic History of Kissing Under the Mistletoe

A closer look at the greenery responsible for sleazy dudes scoring winter kisses and 18th-century wives getting to smooch someone other than their husbands.

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The Complicated and Chaotic History of Kissing Under the Mistletoe

In the winter of 2017, an Irish police department became the main character on Twitter after posting a warning: “If you bump into that special someone under the mistletoe tonight, remember that without consent it is rape.” Replies varied across a spectrum of outrage: Some were furious that the department seemed to be trivializing rape by comparing it to a Christmas tradition. Others laughed, asking things along the lines of, “Are people having sex under mistletoe now?” And some thought the department was being “preachy” and “condescending” by insinuating that people who find themselves under mistletoe wouldn’t know any better than to ask for consent.

Haters will never pass up an opportunity to finger-wag, but the police department was actually more justified than anyone could have imagined. These days, mistletoe is part of the fabric of the holiday season—but there’s no harm in pulling at those strings to see what might unfurl. Maybe, what really struck a nerve about the cops’ tweet was how it dared to acknowledge how many of our traditions—whether for the holidays or not—have an underlying history in coercion and have been widely wielded to disempower women and femmes. Charles Dickens never wrote about anyone getting assaulted under the mistletoe, but tales of the holiday parasite (which usually feeds off the nutrients of living trees and shrubs) do reveal how its 18th-century British origins shook things up in the snogging department.

They eventually took the tweet down but stood by their original sentiment: “We posted a message on Twitter yesterday that some may have taken out of context but the message remains the same; when you are out socialising over the Christmas period, please remember without consent it is rape.” Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement had just begun to gain traction that year, with stories of nonconsensual sexual experiences coming to the fore—perhaps this was the police department’s way of meeting the moment (I mean…far more police departments did far less). Was it right to categorize something as innocuous as a mistletoe kiss within the realm of sexual assault, or did the unit make asses of themselves?

Screenshot:Twitter: @PoliceServiceNI

The sacred nature of mistletoe has been well documented by historians of Celtic and Norse mythologies, and has been tied to various special ceremonies—Druids, the ancient priests and magicians of the northern European Celtics, for example, collected the plant for their fertility rituals. But the white-berried bushel’s road to being a sneaky Christmas kissing device is much more singular. English historian Ronald Hutton, who teaches at the University of Bristol, told Jezebel that the smooching all started in late-18th-century England, when the expansion of fruit orchards made the once-rare mistletoe more common during the midwinter and thus, more harvestable for London holiday markets. Once it was commercialized (thanks to the Industrial Revolution), the rich added mistletoe to their holiday decor alongside holly and ivy, giving their homes a new, prestigious flare. Consider it the Hermès of Christmas greenery, if you will. Because what’s the point in having deep pockets if you can’t use them to purchase a bunch of small green shrubs with red balls?

It was always assumed that women had the right to refuse, but there was some moral pressure to comply.

And as the greenery became more common, the servants working in these London homes chose to have a little fun with it. “The custom of kissing underneath it begins among servants,” Hutton explained. “When the people who have servants in the houses found out they were doing this very sportingly, instead of forbidding them, they took up the custom themselves.” As the old saying goes, no social status could ever rise above the universal desire to get hot and heavy in public.

As Hutton suggested, kissing under the mistletoe began as a sort of game—something a group can do in high spirits, another way of spreading Christmas cheer (or spit?). But like most things that start in good fun, the outcomes weren’t always the same for everyone. In Dickens’ wildly popular Pickwick Papers, which was published in monthly installments in the mid-1830s, he paints a pretty damning picture of how the excitement of mistletoe depended on your gender. In the novel’s Christmas chapter, Sam Pickwick and his traveling gaggle of gentlemen spend the holidays at Wardle Farm. There, they partake in the holiday festivity, but perhaps only to their—and other men’s—enjoyment. Young girls (some of them servants, others not), on the other hand, were terrified to see that mistletoe had been hung, bolting for corners screaming, struggling to evade the dreaded consequence of being trapped under it. The women who did comply with being kissed were much older than the panic-stricken girls, and only did so on account of “practical politeness.”

Photo:H.F. Davis (Getty Images)

By the time Dickens was writing about mistletoe, the morality around it had already solidified, and there was little that young women could do to escape its cheeky goal. “Certainly for a young woman, the idea that this was a time and a place in which she was expected to submit to being kissed by men who importuned her could be profoundly uncomfortable, and would be, I think, in any century,” Hutton explained. “It was always assumed that women had the right to refuse, but there was some moral pressure to comply.” Even though there’s nothing inherently coercive about kissing under the mistletoe, its unspoken rules made it hard to deviate from its saccharine norm—for girls, refusing a kiss lent itself to accusations of having bad manners, or even worse, being a prude. For boys, it was almost the complete opposite: Christmastime became “just about the only time of year at which they might get to kiss quite a large number of young women.” And amidst the frenzy of action, these boys sometimes used mistletoe as an excuse to cover up unwanted advances, an easy way to shirk blame and avoid taking responsibility for their actions.

That mistletoe eventually morphed into another way for sleazy guys to score with women who weren’t interested in them shouldn’t be the least bit shocking. The whims of tradition always find a way to bend toward male desire, but mistletoe was also doing something bigger back then: In some ways, it changed how England viewed desire and intimacy completely. “It’s a multifaceted social custom of the modern era (the late 18th century) which has both the capacity to introduce fun and to introduce fear and embarrassment,” Hutton said. In other words, as much as mistletoe presented an opportunity for young men to be predatory, it also had the ability to promote liberalism and freedom for young couples. As mistletoe became more and more popular, kissing—even in public—became “socially acceptable […] in a way found in almost no other time of the year.” Thanks to mistletoe, the rules of public affection in British society were beginning to change, and no one could protest actions that would’ve once been deemed too lewd. “Kissing under the mistletoe has a certain edginess [to it],” Hutton told Jezebel.

Some pushed the boundaries of this edginess to serve their own desires—ones that were even more “taboo” than a public peck on the lips. According to a piece in Time, young women in unhappy marriages took hung mistletoe as an opportunity to kiss men other than their husbands—whether secret lovers or an innocent passersby. Turning the coercive undertones of mistletoe on its head, these women orchestrated ways to be under it with their beloveds as a way of pulling the wool over onlookers’ eyes, even in plain sight. With the right scheming, what was typically a weapon of doom suddenly became a way to challenge the confines of arranged marriage, and to own one’s sexuality, even for just a moment. Honestly, kudos to those gals—if I were living in a time where I was that oppressed, I’d only hope that I was smart enough to pull the same trick.

Illustration:Universal History Archive (Getty Images)

Nowadays, the subversive potential of mistletoe is but a faint whiff in the blistering winter wind of its more primal origins, largely resorting to its role as a “silent wingman” for dudes who can’t seem to find the nerve to just ask a girl out—as Anecdote Candles’ holiday candle collection suggests. As Hutton pointed out to me, the tradition of hanging mistletoe is as old as America itself, and as the Christmas decoration made its way across the Atlantic, its association with romance only deepened. A cursory Google search confirms there are at least ten Hallmark titles referencing the plant, and even more under Lifetime, making it part and parcel to the holiday. Rather than a point of conflict or an act of satisfying defiance, the use of mistletoe to spruce up a kissing scene is as predictable as the happy ending itself. Essentially, what was once badass has been reduced to a corny and contrived way to get the chemistry of two otherwise wholly incompatible leads going.

Whether or not the Irish police department was ever justified in invoking sexual assault in their holiday social media seems beside the point. Questioning traditions has always been a sore spot for those who benefit from them, and this isn’t the first time that Christmas traditions have been in this particular hot seat. It wasn’t that long ago that radio listeners began to criticize the classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside” for what many now interpret as a story about non-consensual sex. Bashers zoomed in on the lyric “Say what’s in that drink?” saying it alludes to the female singer being roofied by a date who won’t let her leave his house. Not unlike the Irish Twitter scandal, many were quick to call the allegations blasphemous, accusing so-called “social justice warriors” of not being able to take a joke.

Photo:Getty Images

But similar to mistletoe, the holiday tune may have been carrying a lesser known, subversive secret too: As historian Marya Hannun wrote about in a piece for The Washington Post, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” used to be a “progressive anthem” for unmarried women who were looking for a clever way to stay over at her paramour’s house in a society that saw such an action as uncouth. If there’s one takeaway I have from all of this, it’s that we should never underestimate a horny woman’s ability to get what she wants.

At the end of the day, kissing under the mistletoe is a game of desire—one with rules that are much more malleable than we’ve accepted them to be. If preserving tradition is what it takes to keep the holidays merry and bright, let this be a reminder that manifesting the feminist undertones of our most beloved rituals is a foolproof way to go about it.

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