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.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.