by Minnie Apolis
The title is, I admit, misleading. The Kiss is a relatively late development in the repertoire of affectionate gestures. Greek poets who were otherwise pretty good at chronicling the custom and mores of the classical era had nothing to say about the kiss.
Yet the animal kingdom has gestures that approximate the action of the kiss. Birds are seen to touch bills. Dogs lick each other in greeting, which is not exactly the same as a kiss, but close enough. Even bugs will caress each other's antennae.
We may find it most interesting that our closest relatives in the simian world seem quite fond of kissing. How they may have discovered its joys is an interesting question, but probably they discovered it through trial and error – possibly a lot like the average humanoid teenager.
Since humans are supposed to be an endlessly curious species, it is unfathomable that certain tribes never adopted it, or were very slow to do so. The Celts supposedly acquired the kissing habit long after most other Europeans, and the Inuit not at all.
Happily, the Kiss is now pretty firmly ensconced in humanoid cultures, with many variations which we shall consider here. All notes given refer to traditional customs, which in most cases have likely been interrupted or adulterated by contact with Western or other cultures. Modern residents of every continent may show little difference nowadays from each other or with us Americans.
Possibly the best version of "Sealed With a Kiss" -- by Bobby Vinton, the Polish Prince dontcha know.
KISS AS A PLEDGE OF LOVE
“Sealed with a kiss” is more than just the name of a song. It is a long-time custom for those who are engaged, or performing the rites of marriage, to seal the deal with the happiest of signatures, the kiss. In earlier eras it was looked upon as highly improper for a girl to let some guy kiss her until she was engaged to him – now that seems such a quaint custom.
In fact in earlier eras and cultures of Europe, the kiss at the end of the wedding ceremony may have been the first kiss exchanged between the bride and groom.
However, it may amuse those of Scottish heritage to learn that it was the Scottish custom for the person who performed the rites of marriage to have the first kiss on the lips of the bride. The roots of this custom seem to have come solidly from folk beliefs that the happiness of the bride depended on the receipt of the pastoral kiss – not from religious dogma – although the fact that it was a pleasant duty meant that most pastors made no objection to the custom.
The Scots seem very impressed with the merits of the bridal kiss! It was the further custom (at least in some parts of the kingdom) for the bride to continue merrily kissing every male in the wedding company, with her maids of honor trailing after her.
Kissing seems to have caught on in a big way in both England and France. The Renaissance scholar Erasmus took notes on his visit to England. When his party arrived at a house where he was being housed as a guest for the night, the custom was for the visitor to kiss every member of the household, down to the dog and cat. And in France, it was noted that a young lady of rank in the fifteenth-century would even rise during the middle of a church service to kiss some cavalier who entered church late. Whether this particular lady of rank was typical of her time is unclear, but it surely must have perked up the congregation. We might add the popular dances of France required a symbolic kiss between the dancers.
One of the earliest written mentions of kissing comes in a sixth century scrap of paper in which Leybard, the saint of Tours, gave his betrothed a ring, a kiss and a pair of shoes. The symbolism of each, well known to Europeans of the time, was that the ring was to bind them together, the kiss was to seal the pledge, and the shoes to express humility or selflessness of his love for her. Sorry, but our notes do not include details on whether the shoes were simple moccasins or Prada.
THE ROYAL KISS – and public kissing in general
Louis XII is said to be the first king to make a habit of bestowing a kiss on every woman in Normandy. The Russians likewise looked forward to a kiss from the Czar as a mark of official favor. This survives in the American custom of politicians kissing babies when campaigning for office.
This is in contrast to the custom of Italy, which you might think would favor young lovers in every way. Au contraire-- if a young man kissed a young girl in public, it made marriage almost mandatory. Puts quite a crimp in romancing on a Saturday night. However, by the same token, if a penniless youth wanted to marry an heiress badly enough, he had only to find some opportunity to plant a kiss on the lady's cheek.
This still had its hazards. Reports are that a doge of Padua in the sixteenth century, Pierto Lando, put his own son to death for kissing a girl in the public street!
THE REVERENTIAL KISS
Particularly in the Mideast or Orient, the kiss was a mark of respect or reverence rather than affection. For example, the Arabians were said to kiss the house gods upon entering and leaving the home. Ancient Romans and early Christians were in the habit of kissing the hand of church officials or religious persons. This is seen in for example, kissing religious relics of the saints, kissing the ring of the Pope, the hand of bishops, or by ancient Romans kissing the images of their gods.
Modern day people may still kiss the Bible, although more commonly we merely place a hand upon it. And members of many African tribes may kiss the ground that a chief has just trod upon, and Australian aborigines may merely breathe upon the same ground to express the same respect for a chief.
THE SMELL-KISS, OR OLFACTORY KISS
In many parts of Asia, Africa, Polynesia, Lapland, Russia and reportedly among some American Indians, the smell kiss was the preferred mode. The method was as follows: the nose is applied to the cheek of the person being greeted, a long inhalation is accompanied by closing the eyes, then a slight smacking of the lips which is NOT applied to recipient's cheek or lips. This is not to be confused with the Platonic Kiss on the cheeks which will be treated later.
The Chinese are said to feel that the Western kiss suggests cannibalism. They feel that the smell kiss is more sensual. Parents do not smell-kiss their children except when very young. Traditionally, Japanese moms may hug and caress their babies, but not after they are able to walk.
Anthropologists or other visitors to Borneo do not report seeing anyone smell-kiss a woman, because it is done in private, befitting its extreme sensuality in their culture.
Young lovers in India may say to each other, smell me, rather than kiss me as we say in our American songs.
The platonic kiss or the kiss on the cheeks survives in French and Russian custom. It is especially common in formal greetings when dignitaries meet, and is equivalent to the handshake. In this group is any casual kiss on the cheek or cheeks given among friends as a greeting.
In continental Europe, it is still common for a gentleman to kiss a lady's hand upon greeting, at least in more formal circles. People who return to the States after a long visit to Europe may incorporate this greeting as a sign of their cosmopolitan manner. I was greeted this way by a new graduate who had spent a semester or two in France for advanced studies. Hmmm, now I wonder what other advanced studies he got into.
Early video of Jimmie Rodgers singing "Kisses Sweeter than Wine"
KISSES IN POPULAR SONGS AND FILM
Well! For a while there was hardly a popular song that did not mention kissing in some way. Hold me – kiss me. Kisses sweeter than wine. Sealed with a kiss. Stolen kisses. Kisses in the moonlight. Kisses in June. See embedded video clips, if I can pull that off.
Kisses in film were subject to the Hayes office code after some rather wild movies got loose in the 1920s. The standard was that no film kiss could last longer than three seconds. You went over that limit, and you were “destructive of public morals”! One film that famously worked around this restriction was Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious". Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman break off every three seconds in a sequence that lasts two and a half minutes.
KISSING AS FORFEIT
Kissing as a forfeit is part of several old games or customs. The only one that still robustly survives is the one about catching someone standing under the mistletoe. However, there were several other examples of the forfeit kiss.
In colonial New England, a man who gained possession of a lady's gloves, could demand a kiss as the price of their return. There is also an old English custom that if a sleeping man is kissed by a woman, he is obliged to give her a pair of gloves.
Kissing games in the parlor were an innocent form of entertainment. Do you recall ever playing Post Office, Pillow, Drop the Handkerchief, In a Well, or the longest-surviving game, Spin the Bottle.
The game of Whist was popular in colonial times, a popularity that may partly be rooted in the fact that if the cards played to a trick fell as one (ace), two, three, and four, the person who played the four could demand a kiss of the dealer – if the dealer was someone that the player wished to kiss.
OK, that's all I can tell you about kisses in this article. You probably already know the rest...
Strange Customs of Courtship and Marriage, William J. Fielding, The New Home Library, New York, 1942, pp 53-66.