Kiss Me Kate!

Oh, how we love the classic Christmas custom.

(Illustration by Austin Anderson)

Ah, mistletoe, a name that conjures up a Victorian Christmas scene of rooms strewn with greens and gentlemen stealing kisses from willing ladies who linger demurely under the fresh sprigs that hang above many a doorframe. But where did this quaint custom come from?

The kissing ritual we most closely associate with the Victorians may have been presaged by Washington Irving, who wrote in his 1820 The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, “The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases.”

“We like to point it out when school groups come around,” says Kay Early, a docent at the historic Haller-Gibboney Rock House (c. 1820) in Wytheville where the tradition of hanging mistletoe is strictly observed each year. “It makes the kids giggle and blush.”

At Richmond’s Maymont Mansion (1893), a red bow adorns the mistletoe that hangs annually in the historic Victorian home. “Random visitors do take advantage of it,” laughs Dale Wheary, one of the curators at Maymont.

Fortunately, unlike in Washington Irving’s day, our modern version of the tradition puts no limit on the number of kisses one may bestow beneath the storied plant. And we think that’s a good thing.

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