You can’t ask me that!

Is mistletoe an invitation to sexual harassment?

Continuing her series looking at socially unacceptable questions, Christine Manby ponders a worrisome Christmas tradition

Wednesday 02 January 2019 11:02 GMT
Illustrations by Tom Ford
Illustrations by Tom Ford (Tom Ford)

Christmas comes but once a year. Thank goodness. Personally, I’d be perfectly happy if it became a quadrennial event, like a general election or the Winter Olympics. There’s so much to dislike about Christmas: the expense, the enforced jollity, the dubious traditions. Mistletoe, I’m looking at you. Which of us hasn’t experienced that sinking feeling upon realising that all that lies between us and our escape from a terrible party is a doorway festooned with the stuff, beneath which stands someone we’d usually cross the road to avoid? And their cold sores.

It’s been suggested that kissing under the mistletoe began with the Romans, who included the plant in their Saturnalian rituals, but like post-mortem photography and jewellery made from dead people’s hair, the tradition really took off under the Victorians. Notoriously uptight and starved of physical affection, the Victorians embraced with gusto the festive excuse to grapple with someone they fancied. At least, the chaps did. Naturally, it was them who got to do the grappling. Meanwhile, any young woman who refused mistletoe-sanctioned advances was told she could expect a year of bad luck. Specifically, a year without a proposal of marriage (if you can call that bad luck when it means the mistletoe-botherer won’t get to ask for your hand).

Those poor Victorian women didn’t have much autonomy when it came to choosing who to be kissed by at Christmas, but in the #MeToo era, the mistletoe issue is finally being re-examined with the seriousness it deserves and it turns out “Can I kiss you?” is a very difficult question indeed.

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