Bring Back the (Platonic, Cheerful, Unexpected) Mistletoe Kiss

Ignore the romantic comedies and listen to Dickens: This holiday tradition need not be romantic, or creepy.
A Hablot K. Browne illustration of Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers, which described mistletoe kisses as being “in all courtesy and decorum." (Household Edition, 1874 / victorianweb.org)

If you’re to believe pop culture, Christmas is the holiday when would-be lovers become actual lovers, and mistletoe’s what makes it happen.  The plant has served as fictional romantic catalyst in films ranging from 1995’s While You Were Sleeping to 2013’s Fir Crazy and on countless TV shows in between. When it’s not mistletoe pushing the couple into an unexpected kiss, it’s some other seasonally acceptable condition, like a Sugar Plum Fairy costume (2011’s A Christmas Kiss) or bringing a fake fiancé to meet the family (2012’s Hitched for the Holidays, 2004’s A Boyfriend for Christmas, and so on).

People love mistletoe in movies because it helps prompt an expected, happy end. But I blame the movies for ruining mistletoe in real life. They’ve taught that a kiss is never just a friendly kiss—and that attitude, I think, has led people give up on a holiday tradition almost entirely.

Maybe I’m in the wrong social circles. But mistletoe just doesn't seem as popular as film and TV would make you think. Last week, I did catch a rare sighting of the stuff at a party—but everyone ignored it. As far as empirical basis for thinking that mistletoe’s on the decline … well, I’ve got this Kay Jewelers’ commercial.  In it, the Mistletoe Growers’ association board frets that while kisses are up, sales of their product are on the decline. The culprit? Kay, of course.

The factual basis of that ad is, to say the least, fuzzy. But the emotional truth is clear. These days, kissing—especially holiday kissing—is seen as the sole provenance of lovers.

Many holiday parties have outlawed mistletoe as the precursor of sexual harassment. A quick Google search proves the season of company parties leads to a January of lawsuits, and a slew of law firm blogs warn that employees and mistletoe are a poisonous mix. Which makes a certain amount of sense. Just like holiday cocktails, mistletoe is ripe for abuse. “No means no” still applies under the bough.

But there’s something sad about this mistletoe anxiety. Washington Irving and Charles Dickens would certainly be mystified by it.

Irving, in Christmas Eve, describes kissing under the mistletoe as a “privilege” accorded by the ladies to the gentlemen (though the parson apparently disagrees). Dickens, in Pickwick Papers, describes a mistletoe-blessed kiss as a salute “in all courtesy and decorum."

Their examples show that the spirit of the season does not require tongue. And despite what the movies tell us, not every kiss is the prelude to a make-out session or even a happily-ever-after relationship.

Whatever it is about Christmas that that inspires a taste for predictable movies, 12 kinds of cookies at once, and inane remakes of once-decent songs, I suspect that part of it is a wish to draw closer to the people around us. Enter mistletoe, the “mystic branch” as Dickens called it, to aid us in both giving and receiving simple human touch. Even speaking as a city dweller, a rider of public transportation, and a lifelong advocate for personal space, I think—for a few weeks of the year—we can stand to be less stingy. Let Christmas be our excuse for kissing loved ones, liked ones, and strangers alike—good will to all.

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Alicia M. Cohn is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

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