The Herbs of Christmas

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Photo by Jerry Pavia

Winter solstice is upon us again, and so the time has come to break out the Christmas finery and be merry. Although veiled in Christian liturgy, Yule–from jul, meaning wheel, for the yearly cycle–was originally a pagan festival, and therefore herb-infused. The botanical trappings of the season have proven astoundingly consistent throughout the past several thousand years, and a cursory investigation of their origins makes for interesting reading.

Holly and ivy

Although the Christmas tree is now the season’s dominant icon, throughout most of history holly and ivy enjoyed top billing. Both were powerful talismans in Europe’s pre-Christian religions, because they flourish, and even bear fruit, in the dead of winter. To the Druids, holly’s green leaves symbolized life; its red berries, creation and rebirth. Holly is in fact the origin of what are to this day the season’s official colors. Ivy is soft and embracing. As a graphic metaphor for love and harmony, a cluster of holly bound with ivy presided over festivities in England until the mid-nineteenth century.

All that was missing was mistletoe. This was eventually added, and the resulting “kissing bough” hung from the ceiling. The ancients believed that enemies who fought beneath mistletoe would incur divine wrath, hence its ubiquity during the season of peace. The presence of mistletoe called for a gesture of conciliation–usually a kiss. (Under the original rules, however, a berry must be picked for each kiss accorded, and the sprig taken down when stripped bare.)

Post-pagan developments

Christian contributions to Christmas include two herbal substances listed among the gifts of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew. The first, frankincense, is the resin of a sumac-like tree (Boswellia thurifera) from southern Arabia and India. With fellow gift myrrh, the dried sap of a gum tree (Commiphora myrrha) from Arabia and East Africa, it was burned as incense and used in perfume. Both were also highly prized by embalmers for their preservative properties. The value of these herbs in Christ’s time can be gauged by the company they kept (for gold was the Magi’s third gift to the Christ child).

Although strapping year-round health earned conifer trees the respect of Nordic peoples well before the birth of Christ, the Christmas tree only recently became predominant in English-speaking countries. German immigrants first brought it to America in the late eighteenth century; fifty years later it was introduced to Britain and Canada by way of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German consort.

A host of modern ornamentals owe their Christmas connections to serendipitous flowering times or coloring. Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is a dark-green Mexican plant that flowers bright red as the days get shorter. As does Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera ¥buckleyi), an epiphyte that grows on Central American trees. Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) owes its common name to the fact that it remains green through the holidays.

Kitchen traditions

The rich flavors and scents of Christmas are as herb-dependent as its pageantry, and easily as compelling. Some of them can be traced to the poverty of past generations, who could permit themselves such indulgences as peppermint candy and oranges only during the holidays. Cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, the primary seasonings in plum pudding and mince pie, have been associated with the Holy Trinity, while sage, rosemary, and thyme form another “holy trinity” in the stuffing of Christmas geese and turkeys.

Deck the halls

For a winter holiday, Christmas is unusually, one might say triumphantly, well-decked with herbs. This year, take time out to appreciate the heritage, several millennia old in many cases, of familiar, cheer-inspiring Yuletide traditions.

Robert K. Henderson is a frequent contributor to The Herb Companion and the author of The Neighborhood Forager: A Guide for the Wild Food Gourmet (Chelsea Green, 2000). 

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