Sunday, December 13, 2015

From the Archives: Mistletoe Madness, 1796

Sunday, December 13, 2015
Isabella reporting:

In modern holiday celebrations, mistletoe has become something of a kitsch-y joke, the inevitable prop for I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus humor.

But in the 1790s, when the print, left, was published, mistletoe still had an aura of wickedness, even danger. The ancient Druidic traditions linking mistletoe and fertility had not been forgotten, and kissing beneath the mistletoe was thought to lead to more promiscuity, or even - shudder! - marriage.

Certainly the four merry young  couples in this print appear to be enjoying themselves. Some scholarly descriptions refer to this as a dance scene, and perhaps it does show nothing more than a particularly rollicking country dance.

Still, I can't help but think that at any moment some stern-faced, indignant elder is going to appear in the doorway and demand to know what exactly is going on down here. I'm guessing the artist thought that, too, from the caption he added to the bottom: "Whilst Romp loving Miss is haul'd about/With gallantry robust." (The attribution to Milton is incorrect; the line is from a poem by the 18th c. Scottish poet James Thomson.) In any event, there's no doubt that these are romp-loving misses being haul'd about by their robust gallants. No wonder Christmas mistletoe was so popular!

Above: The mistletoe, or, Christmas gambols, by Edward Penny, 1796, London. Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.


Donna Hatch said...

Whether dancing or something less innocent, they do appear to be having fun. I love the image of a matron appearing and demanding to know what is going on :-)

aprilmunday said...

Given that the participants are in a state of undress, I think we can work out what's going on. No gentleman would dance without his jacket and surely no lady would allow the impropriety of being hoisted in the air like that.

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