Our contributors share their favorite herbal holiday traditions.
We hope you’ll enjoy reading these herbal suggestions for celebrating the holidays from frequent contributors to The Herb Companion. Check out the recipes on page 26 for additional ideas.
My favorite thing is to do light holiday feasts so people can eat as much as they want but don’t feel stuffed after dinner. Herbs add celebrative pizzazz to very plain steamed or baked vegetables. I have done this for many years and people are always amazed that they feel great after eating. I always serve several vegetables, to cut down on starches. Plain steamed or baked vegetables are often seasoned only with reduced herb vinegars or tossed with a small amount of oil and fresh herbs or ground spices. One of the basic tricks is to add lots of fresh herbs to whatever you happen to be serving, even if it is high in fat, to improve digestion and increase metabolism of fats.
I also enjoy making pantry gifts of herb-infused cheeses, herb vinegars, and herb butters. It seems that every time I have an elaborate dinner party, no matter what I serve or how much I spend, people always go home raving about the butter. It is always the highlight of the meal.
I always feel that drinking more herb tea protects you from holiday stress and the colds and flus that accompany it. Sage-and-thyme tea is my first choice, followed by lemon balm and peppermint, but one cup or two a day of each is plenty. Too much of anything over a long period of time imbalances the body.
Our herbal traditions come and go. The only consistent ones are lavender-wand making, lavender Christmas tree ornament baskets (both made in July), and pomanders at Christmastime. Sometimes, we do the odd herbal wreath, but our one steadfast tradition is eggnog!
From October into the winter holidays I eat a lot of highly herbed pumpkin soup. Sometimes it’s full of spicy peppers and such, as they make it in the Caribbean, and sometimes it’s full of thyme, rosemary, and sage, as it’s done in Europe. But it’s always very herbed.
For Thanksgiving, I use wild-harvested mushrooms and walnuts or butternuts (also known as white walnuts) in the stuffing. Both have just become abundant during that season (mid-October here in Canada). I prefer sweet potatoes made with Tagetes marigold petals (also available fresh on Canadian Thanksgiving) to sugary ones. After Thanksgiving and Christmas, I like to eat turkey sandwiches with sorb (rowan berry) ketchup, ideally with black, homebrewed spruce beer on the side.
At Christmas I enjoy stringing rose hips for the tree; after they dry, they can be used in tea. Also, simmering branches trimmed from the tree with cloves, cinnamon, and other spices is great to humidify the house and fill it with Christmas smells. I also like roasted juniper berry tea brewed with orange peel and cloves, with cream and a chunk of candy cane dissolved in it.
Don’t forget St. Andrew’s Day (November 30) and Burns’ Night (January 25), the two dominant cultural holidays of Scotland. Dishes I eat for these holidays include herbed lamb (mutton when I can get it), Scotch eggs with thyme and pepper, colcannon (mashed potatoes and cabbage) with chickweed, parsley, and/or clover, and white pudding highly seasoned with thyme, sage, and rosemary. For Burns’ Night I eat haggis when I can get it, sadly not very often, but the whole trick to a great haggis is the herbs you put into it, which may include onion, thyme, mace, pepper, sage, savory, or other spices as the butcher’s own recipe demands. And few pleasures in life equal a leftover lamb or mutton sandwich with walnut ketchup made the previous June—which comes into its best about St. Andrew’s Day.
Rosedale, British Columbia, Canada
The main never-fail herbal tradition around our house is the herb stuffing I always make for our holiday turkeys. It’s a recipe I got from my mother, which she found nearly fifty years ago in a women’s magazine.
It’s a simple recipe using onion, celery leaves, sage, thyme, marjoram, and parsley, stirred into melted butter and tossed with breadcrumbs. The herbal blend is intoxicating, and I’ve never found anything to beat it. Canadian Thanksgiving is the second Monday in October, so I can often pick my own herbs to use fresh from the garden at that time.
At Christmas, family guests come to stay with us for several days, so my herbal ventures are limited. Besides the traditional herb stuffing, we always have a fresh balsam fir Christmas tree that touches the 9-foot ceilings of our Victorian house. The whole house smells like a forest, from top to bottom. My mom—from whom I got my love of herbs—always has dibs on the branch trimmings. She saves those and strips the needles to use in potpourri and balsam scent pillows in the New Year.
—Mary Fran McQuade
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
We actually begin the fall/winter season with St. Michael’s Day. Sage wine and/or sage in a dish, something with blackberries, and a flamed or grilled dish are the focus of dinner that night. The week before and after Halloween, our front and back doors are decorated with big bouquets of protective herbs—garlic, St. John’s wort seedpods, rue pods, fresh and glycerined oak leaves, golden yarrow, red mountain ash berries, silver pennies, mugwort, dillheads, and thin red ribbons. After all, one can’t be too careful!
Thanksgiving features sage-and-onion stuffing in the turkey. If I have time, I make a dried centerpiece of herbs, leaves, and herbal flowers that represent the total harvest a family or community needed to survive until the next growing season. Each variety of plant material has a use and a story. We celebrate a month of Christmas. Herbs and their stories play a big role. We begin with St. Nicolas’ day. Usually dinner is fish chowder with rosemary, Adelma Simmons’ golden bishops’ punch (company only—-it’s pretty lethal!), pfefferneüsse, and St. Nicholas’ day coffee. Chocolate gold coins and oranges decorate the table and serve as part of dessert.
On St. Lucy’s day, we often invite friends for breakfast. We make apple candles for the table, drink coffee with cardamom and milk, and eat Swedish pancakes, bacon, eggs, and strawberries and pineapple with cardamom—the red and gold of the fruit and the flavoring make that a St. Lucy tradition here.
Our manger scene is always decorated with herbs: rosemary, chamomile, woodruff, thyme, horehound, lavender, and bedstraw. I spread them on the bottom of the scene instead of straw. I make a big bowl of fresh Christmas potpourri that I set out at the beginning of December. In addition, I always hang juniper on the doors mixed with other evergreens and golden pinecones, and make a big batch of rosemary walnuts to use throughout the season. We usually have a fire going in our Franklin stove, so I often burn frankincense and myrrh in the evening. Of course my rosemary plants are front and center for the month. Maybe you can tell I love Christmas. Actually, I love to celebrate!
Pomander balls are a fun, scented ornament to make. My favorite fruits to use are pears and oranges—pears stuck closely with whole cloves dry in such a cool shape! I use a fine turkey skewer to pierce holes in the orange peel, and the cloves slide right in. To cure, I roll them in a mixture of ground orris root, star anise, cinnamon, and allspice in a shallow bowl, turning them daily until they are dry. Then I tie them up with narrow velvet ribbon in leaf green, cinnamon brown, and red and hang them on the Christmas tree or tie them on presents.
Another favorite is holiday tussie-mussies made with white roses, long pine needles, a stick of cinnamon, fresh mistletoe, and deep green ivy leaves, tied with wide gauzy ribbons for gifts—especially nice as hostess gifts to take along to parties. (White roses with a picotee edge of red are also a wonderful addition.) The tussie-mussies with mistletoe are great hung above doorframes or in the chandelier for New Year’s kisses.
I always make rosemary cake for Thanksgiving. My birthday falls on or near Thanksgiving day each year, so it is great. I got the recipe at the 1987 national meeting of The Herb Society of America from Patsy Thomas (then eighty-nine years old and still a spry “herb lady”). (See recipe on page 29). Hope it keeps us all that young at heart!
My family likes to give small gifts to our friends, neighbors, and coworkers for the winter holidays. Because our gift list contains more than fifty names, I look for projects that are inexpensive, easy, and fast, but still handcrafted, have personal appeal, and include materials from my garden. Last year we gave bars of lavender soap, which I created using melt-and-pour glycerin and lavender essential oil, formed in molds featuring a bee-and-hive design. Wrapped in lavender-colored tissue paper (from the dollar store) and decorated with ribbons and dried lavender wands, these soaps were a big hit—and so simple to make. This year, I’m giving jars of vinegar flavored with blackberries, lavender, and lemon verbena, all grown in my small backyard.
Red Hook, New York
Every year as the herbs are going crazy, I make a dozen bottles of herbal vinegar to give as Christmas gifts. I usually recycle iced-tea bottles, spray-painting the lids some festive color. Every year I make a different kind of vinegar and every year they are joyfully given to my close friends and family. I always remember the day I harvested the herbs as I use the bottle I set aside for myself. It is a wonderful way to bring the summer in all winter long and to share the bounty of my garden.
Around New Year’s I like to make a fire outside and burn some herbs that symbolize my wishes for the coming year. In the crisp, clean air, I also enjoy the scents that I am sending to heaven. I have burned borage for courage, thyme for strength, lavender for calm, roses for love, and many more. I say a prayer of thanksgiving for the gifts that herbs bring to me. One year I did this with a bunch of close women friends, and as we tossed herbs into the fire we told each other of our wishes.
The use of “Golden Food” for the holidays is applicable to Christian celebrations (i.e. reference to Jesus as the Light of the World) as well as in India’s Festival of Lights. Golden foods (and flowers) also find their way into celebrations in Mexico and other Catholic countries at Day of the Dead festivities (All Saints’ Day).
Christmas Applesauce Balls for tree and package decorations are made with the spices/fixatives that are used for pomanders plus applesauce to make a soft dough. They are rolled into 11/2-inch balls and pierced with a knitting needle to thread through a ribbon. The ribbon is secured with a clove under the loop which forms the indentation that looks like an apple. (See complete recipe on page 28). These are very fragrant and last for years.
We like to emphasize the symbolism of herbs used in decorations, as well as food at holiday time. We like to use fresh greenery—juniper, pine, wild and cultivated myrtle—along with the herbs that are traditionally used in the creche—rosemary, thyme, savory, and sage. These Mediterranean herbs all would have been growing in the region and were used in the bedstraw to keep down the bugs and keep it fresh smelling. They were also used as strewing herbs on the bare ground floors in homes. We usually use the golden (see above) or blue flowers that have symbolism as decoration for wreaths. The blue symbolism refers to Mary’s cloak and eyes, and of course is lovely with the gold.
—Gwen Barclay and Madalene Hill
Round Top, Texas
Holidays start with the herb harvest all summer and into fall harvest season. Right now I have my big flower presses and phone books full of leaves and flowers that I press and dry to make herbal cards for Christmas and for gifts. I do workshops with them so I need lots of dried material. As the season goes on, I dry herbs for tea that I package in jars and little teabags for gifts. I also gather lavender blooms to make wands and bath salts.
When the chile harvest begins, I make jelly and salsa, as well as dry large amounts of chiles in the oven. I use dried chiles to decorate gifts, adorn wreaths and swags, and to make chili powder (which I give as a gift with a recipe for black bean chili). I am a chilehead, so I grow a lot of chiles and use them in arrangements. I make tiny herb wreaths and attach small chiles to them for Christmas ornaments, to go on packages, or to go around the neck of a wine bottle. I make culinary herb swags and attach chiles to them for friends who like to cook.
The Thanksgiving table usually has a cornucopia or two full of seasonal fruits, vegetables, nuts, and herbs. The length of the table (which is two long tables pushed together) is strewn with fall leaves, gourds and winter squash, Indian corn, pomegranates, persimmons, every size and shape of chiles, and sage and rosemary branches, with lots of candles in between.
We celebrate the winter solstice so the house is decorated with many greens before the shortest day of the year to welcome and keep the light. Greens of every variety are cut: pine, cedar, juniper, hemlock, yew, boxwood, holly, ivy, and mistletoe. They are in arrangements throughout the house, made into kissing balls, wreaths, and swags. We burn lots of candles, as well as the woodstove. The evening meal is usually oven-roasted root vegetables and winter squash with sage and garlic and a big mess of wilted greens and garlic.
Christmas, of course, means rosemary, and I have more than thirty plants in my greenhouse. I have a Christmas-tree shaped plant that we sometimes put tiny white lights on, but mostly we decorate it with handmade paper ornaments—the way the first Christmas trees were decorated. I also have standard ball-shaped topiaries and a large wreath with bows attached. These rosemaries are grouped with bulbs that I force—narcissus and lots of amaryllis—and of course pots of poinsettias and cyclamen.
Christmas brunch has the traditional homemade stollen, an egg dish with herbs, and oven-roasted rosemary potatoes. I usually bake at least ten kinds of cookies. The holidays are a time of giving homemade gifts from our garden. We package up baskets—with jams, jellies, pickles, chiles, vinegars, mustards, cookies, bath salts, herbal teas, and spritzers—designed with the receiver in mind.
Greeks celebrate Christmas day with a traditional meal that includes a roasted turkey or goose stuffed with delicious Greek herbs and spices such as parsley, Greek oregano, thyme, bay leaves, garlic, onions, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice. Spanakopita, a savory phyllo pie of spinach, dill, or mint and cinnamon is also enjoyed. You can find the recipes for the stuffing and spanakopita in my book, Secrets of Fat-Free Greek Cooking (Penguin Putnam Avery, 1998). Kala Christougenna! (Merry Christmas!)
—Elaine Gavalas New York, New York
My tradition is to go into the woods when the leaves have fallen off the trees, after Thanksgiving. I like to pick a day when there’s a little dusting of snow falling and I take a basket and a little trowel with me, going to an area where there are limestone ledges where wild ginger grows. I can see the ginger patches because the withered leaves are still there, even though they’re brown and dormant for winter. I dig a good handful of gingerroots, being careful to replace the smaller ones to grow again, keeping only those about 4 or 5 inches long and the size of a pencil. I like to sit and just feel the air, experience the feeling of this season, and inhale the earthy, spicy aroma of the ginger and the soil where it grows.
Back home, I wash the roots and put them in a pan with 3 cups of water and 2 cups of sugar and simmer them for about an hour. Then I drain the roots overnight and roll them in sugar, letting them air-dry for a day or so. I store these in an airtight jar in the pantry, then just before Christmas, I put the candied wild ginger in bowls for guests who visit and they’re always pleasantly amazed at the warm, mild flavor. I’ve been doing this every year for more than two decades. It reminds me of my childhood, the excitement of Christmas, and of my necessary connection to nature.
Blue Eye, Missouri
I buy miniature rosemary shrubs shaped like Christmas trees (sold seasonally in Austin nurseries at about 16 inches tall) and decorate them to give as gifts. Children especially love to have their own little Christmas trees decorated with miniature wooden ornaments, tiny red satin bows, and miniature Christmas balls—you can even purchase miniature strings of lights. I also festively wrap little boxes under the tree filled with surprises.
For a Southwestern-inspired tree, I tie on dried red chile peppers and little straw and clay ornaments from Mexico, using raffia. Tiny bouquets of dried herbs and flowers and miniature herbal wreaths and satin silver bows make a more elegant rosemary tree. Wrap the plastic pots with florist foil, available at florist-supply stores. You may also want to add a big bow.
During the holiday season, I always have pots of hot mulled cider simmering—great spiked with rum or tequila, too. My mulled spice recipe appears in The Herb Garden Cookbook (Gulf, 1998).
Years ago, a friend and I made ourselves herbal wreaths copied from an article in The Herb Companion. All of the herbs have significance to the Christmas season. It is faded and old but still lovely and I pull it out and hang it every November through February. I also always put sage leaves in a decorative pattern under the skin of turkey—both at Christmas and Thanksgiving. Our stuffing is always full of rosemary. A favorite festive and decorative hors d’oeuvre I like to make for Christmas parties layers frozen pesto with cream cheese in a star mold—pretty and delicious.
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