"Until you get kissed," said Miss Manners when asked how long the Christmas mistletoe should stay up.
An easy and possibly wise answer from this authority on good manners, but like most clever answers it skirts deep matters, some of which we should contemplate now.
Suppose, for instance, you don't "get kissed" despite branches all over the house. Then you must consider that perhaps you are the one who is supposed to do the kissing rather than the one who "gets kissed."
Suppose further that nobody kisses you or wants you to kiss them. Miss Manners thinks there's no point waiting forever and the mistletoe should not stay up as late as the Fourth of July. The third?
Traditionally, and here I give the firm authoritative answer Miss Manners avoids, probably to avoid upsetting the klutzerie: Mistletoe comes down on Feb. 1, which is Candlemas Eve.
I go with the flow, however, as I realize that sane people are sick of Christmas by Dec. 15. We have all seen lighted Christmas trees in places like Hechinger in October, and it would surprise nobody to learn festive holiday wrappings went on sale somewhere on Aug. 18.
Mistletoe, therefore, should come down (to reduce the vomit level of the republic) by Jan. 6, the traditional day for taking down the Christmas tree.
And I acknowledge that, so dismal is the time, many and perhaps most citizens sweep all the stuff out on Dec. 31.
You notice, in other words, that the gracious season of mistletoe, box, ivy, rosemary, juniper, holly and bay has shrunk from February to December.
We should also acknowledge there are many houses in which last year's wreath still mourns on the front door. All through the spring, all through the dog days, those wreaths have hung there as notable symbols of corruption and decay, the leaves and berries long since dried up. And in many cases the wreath was not holly to begin with, but plastic leaves and berries, or dead grapevines (a clever if ugly ploy of vintners to sell prunings from their vines) or everlasting pine cones or, in one case, teddy bears.
In those houses there is no reason for the mistletoe ever to come down or, for that matter, ever to be put up. If the wreath can stay all year, so can the mortal remains of the Christmas greens. What was once meant to signify the living presence of the god (and the use of these greens runs far back, probably to the Stone Age) now signifies not so much the death of the god as the widespread indifference to the trauma of winter and the swelling of spring, and an equal displacement of joy in life itself.
I trust this answers the mistletoe question more adequately than Miss Manners had time to do when the question was put to her out of the blue.
But having answered the question for all practical purposes I now address those -- nobody knows how many, and maybe they are only a remnant -- who remain in some awe of mistletoe.
Delaware is a great state for mistletoe and so are the Southern states. Once in my home country I set forth in my Army-surplus Jeep to the river bottoms, those fantastic flood plains of the Mississippi where you find various kinds of wild holly, some of them so thick with scarlet berries the stems cannot be seen, and here and there among the gums and cypresses and sycamores and hackberries you find a tree with a branch of mistletoe whose main stem is thick as a man's forearm. The mass of leaves and berries may be five feet thick.
Shooting down mistletoe one December, in just such a place, I fell out of a high tree into a bayou and therefore survived, though even if one fell to the ground he'd probably live, so thick is the undergrowth. I took the load of mistletoe to town, where the best price I could get was 10 bucks, so I didn't sell it but gave branches of it for Christmas presents. That year we had real mistletoe at our house, massive clumps of it everywhere.
Even today there cannot be many people who are unmoved in Southeastern forests, where the light is low and the outlines are soft, to see here and there the profound live green of a juniper or holly, or high up in the occasional tree the magical (and formerly sacred) mistletoe. Life in full glory in the midst of death.
Kissing strangers beneath it (and fortunately this agreeable custom survives) is all that's left now of the old awe. I guess kissing suggests sex, as it often leads to bed, I am told, and that suggests new life.
But for some people mistletoe has always signified something less casual than puritan kissing. The golden knife to cut it, the rich green in the lifeless gray, the presence of the god and the surge of life.