7 Dec 2023

Under the Mistletoe

Kissing under the mistletoe is an integral part of Christmas celebrations, although it suffered something of a setback during the Covid pandemic when we were all nervous about keeping our distance. This is a venerable tradition, rooted in the pagan antecedents of Christmas, so it is likely to prove resilient and live on. We take a look at the ritual of the festive kiss, lay down some rules of mistletoe etiquette, and offer some hints about politely avoiding unwanted advances.

The Story of Mistletoe

The Greeks and Romans revered mistletoe, which they believed could cure everything from spleen disorders to epilepsy. The plant’s tendency to blossom in the depths of winter gave it a special resonance for the Celtic Druids, who saw it as a sacred symbol of vigour, which they administered to humans and animals alike as a means of restoring fertility.

However, the earliest references to kissing under the mistletoe date to the 18th century. It soon became associated with lustful boys and bashful girls and was initially characterised as enjoyable horseplay for the servant classes. Early depictions of this ritual show the girls struggling to escape the boys’ clutches, so it is suggested that the mistletoe was wielded as a means of securing their compliance – perhaps because they believed that resisting would lead to bad luck.

When the American writer Washington Irving visited England and observed this tradition he described it in his Sketch Book. A minor English ritual was introduced to a large American audience, which was eager to embrace it as a symbol of festive cheer.

Mistletoe Etiquette

•Be considerate: If you are feeling a cold or sore throat coming on, don’t tough out the Christmas celebrations, and certainly don’t engage in close physical contact under the mistletoe. Make your excuses and go home.

•Make sure you pick a willing partner and that you won’t make them feel embarrassed or uncomfortable by asking for a kiss (and you should always ask first, no grabbing).

•If you’re indulging in under-the-mistletoe hugs at an office party, don’t get carried away with drink and over-enthusiasm. Grasping the boss in a drunken embrace will be an embarrassing memory the morning after – remember, no matter how convivial the event, office hierarchies still underpin everything.

• Decide in advance, are you going to proffer one kiss or two? Be cautious with strangers – two kisses may seem over the top, even in a festive environment.

• Maintain a discreet distance. If in doubt, don’t combine your kiss with a full hug, which will draw your target into your personal space. Lean forward and, if that feels too stand-offish, lightly rest your hands on the target’s shoulders or upper arms.

• It is customary to kiss the other person’s right cheek first (that’s the one to your left!). Deflect any “meet-in-the-middle” embarrassment with humour or a friendly apology.

•Remember, a social ‘kiss’ is just the briefest touch of your cheek against the other person’s. You can pucker your lips to suggest a kiss, but do not let them touch the other person’s check. Don’t kiss the air or make exaggerated “mwah, mwah” sound effects.

• Thank the other person and wish them a Merry Christmas.

What to do if you Don't Want to Participate

Remember, it is traditionally considered bad luck to refuse a kiss under the mistletoe, but it is undoubtedly true that some people find the whole mistletoe ritual tacky, and fear it is a barely disguised excuse to grab unwilling targets and pull them into a close physical embrace. If you recoil at the prospect, the safest bet is to steer clear of the mistletoe and engage in animated conversation if you see an enthusiast lurching purposefully in your direction.

If that feels too antisocial – after all, a festive peck is all part of Christmas fun – you can clasp the other person’s shoulders as a way of keeping them at a distance, rather than drawing them in, and then briefly lunge for the region to the side of their ears. An off-kilter kiss is preferable to no kiss at all.

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