The holidays are a wonderful time to enjoy herbs and there are so many delightful opportunities to use them in baking, cooking as well as medicinally. When thinking about Christmas and the birth of Jesus, there is quite literally no way to avoid the fact that herbs are involved. Gold, frankincense and myrrh are deeply rooted into the story of the new-born child and the three wise men.
Old traditions and legends have connected many herbs with Christmas and make them especially appropriate for the Advent and Christmas seasons yet so many people don’t actually know why. With that being said, I’ve put together my very own 12 Herbs of Christmas, their meaning and how to incorporate them into your Christmas festivities.
So this is a pretty obvious one – Christmas isn’t Christmas without a roast full of herbs like rosemary and thyme, but what is its real connection to Christmas? Rosemary has a long-standing association with Mary (it’s in the name people!) It is said that traditionally the shrub is fragrant because Mary laid Jesus’ garments on its branches and it is even believed that the night he was born, the shrubs suddenly bore fruit & flowers blossomed out of season! Another tradition states that rosemary will only grow to six feet tall (1.8m), the same height as Jesus and that after 33 years (the age Jesus was crucified) it will grow wider but not taller. Rosemary can be found in almost any herb garden now and it is known as the herb of remembrance with one of its earliest documented use as a cognitive stimulant.
Phytotherapy uses it as a general tonic having wonderful effects on mood, stress, immunity as well as pain relief.
How to incorporate it into your Christmas festivities? Don’t only go for the obvious roast and stuffing flavouring. Why not use a small shrub as a table-top Christmas tree? Or give the gift of a ‘memory wine’ that could also help with those headaches the next day! Just add ¾ cup of freshly chopped rosemary leaves to 1 ½ cups of a quality (preferably organic) red wine and let it sit for 10 days before straining the mixture and decanting into a beautiful glass bottle.
It is said that Joseph cut branches of thyme to make a bed for Mary and Jesus. Thyme signifies happiness, courage and strength in Christ. Medicinally, it is considered to be antiseptic, making it a fitting addition to the manger.
Incorporate it into your Christmas by adding it to your roast and stuffing or popping it into a gin cocktail to spruce it up.
Tradition states that Mary washed their clothing with this wonderfully fragrant herb and used the bush as a clothes line – which correlates to the Latin derived name ‘lavare’ meaning to wash. It is a symbol of purity, cleanliness and immortality – not surprisingly blue is the colour representing Mary in paintings and stories.
Phytotherapy uses lavender because of its ability to reduce stress and relax muscles so add it to your festivities by placing sprigs on presents or making your own therapeutic relaxing bath salts as gifts.
4&5 Frankincense & Myrrh
Heard of the Three Wise Men? Yeah, these are two of the three gifts they brought for Jesus and it’s difficult to separate the two when discussing their connection to Christmas. The other gift was gold – that’s easy to understand as a gift, but what about the other two gifts? In truth, the value of frankincense and myrrh far outweighs that of gold. They have incredible emotional, physical and spiritual healing capabilities and are more than mere symbols of the season. According to tradition frankincense was a symbol of Jesus’ priestly role and myrrh a prefiguring of his death and embalming. Other traditions suggest that the gifts were more practical and medicinal than symbolic though. With frankinsense and myrrh helping with pain, anxiety stress and anger, many thought they were given because of the pain that Jesus would go through in his lifetime. They are both also said to provoke spiritual thinking, so add them to your celebrations by adding the essential oils to an oil burner to fill the room with their scent and provoke spiritual thinking while calming down those family feuds – and if that doesn’t help then at least they will be close by for when that inevitable fight breaks out!
Another manger herb, pennyroyal represents “escape” – which is exactly what Joseph and Mary did after the Three Wise Men visited and warned them of King Herod’s plans. It’s symbolism correlated with its medicinally use as an excellent insect repellent. Use it during our hot South African nights to repel mosquitos naturally with this recipe from Kirsten Anderberg.
Another very obvious herb that goes hand in hand with any gammon dish. Cloves traditionally were associated with love and protection and in the early church clove trees were planted to mark the occasion of a child’s birth. Not only used on gammon, clove-studded oranges are also easy and can be included in a pot of mulled cider or used decoratively. Chewing on a clove will take care of bad breath, too, so pass it only that relative that always seems to lean in a bit too close when they talk.
Another traditional manger herb, it represents good health. Throughout history it has been used to combat illnesses from its diaphoretic actions in fever to treating asthma.
It tastes great in a candied form, so add it to your dessert this year by boiling down the fresh leaves until the juice is extracted, then add sugar before boiling this again, until it has become thick enough in consistency to pour into a paper case and cut into squares when cool. It helps with digestion so ending your meal off with this beautiful herb is an impressive idea!
I know what you’re thinking and yes – it does have connection to Christmas that doesn’t have to do with drinking gin! It is said that as Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled to Egypt and came across another group of soldiers, juniper trees nearby opened their branches to hide them – thus becoming the symbol of sanctuary. The strong scent is also believed to confuse pursuers. In the early Christian church, bunches of juniper and rosemary were burned to purify the air and symbolize the prayers of the faithful for protection.
The branches are prickly, so I wouldn’t use a one as a Christmas tree or gift it to anyone (that you like) but you can definitely use the berries in an infused water to drink (or a good G&T to get through those questions about why you still haven’t had any children!)
You can’t have Christmas without candy canes and you can’t have candy canes without peppermint, but interestingly enough there is no actual connection to the birth of Jesus. Where exactly did candy canes come from you ask? Hungry children. Yep! Hungry children in Christmas pageants. In about 1670 the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral had sticks of candy bent into the shape of a shepherd’s crook (to symbolise Jesus as the shepherd) and passed them out to children who attended the pageants so that they wouldn’t go hungry.
Peppermint’s flavour is similar to another member of the mint family, hyssop and in the Old Testament hyssop was used for purification and sacrifice, and this is said to symbolize the purity of Jesus and the sacrifice he made.
Phytotherapy uses peppermint for heaps of problems – most commonly for indigestion, bloating and irritable bowel syndrome symptoms. The perfect addition to any dessert, it can also be added to water to be drank throughout the meal or a peppermint tea to end of the meal and help with the big digestion that will need to take place.
Sage softens sorrow. symbolically it means “I will suffer all for you”. It was included as a herb in Jesus’ manger without Joseph realising that it was a forewarning to the death of his Son. It’s always important to celebrate Jesus’ life but at the same time remember that his purpose on earth was to die on our behalf – a sorrow made easier for Mary and Joseph through the symbol of Sage. The herb also represents protection. Folklore mentions that while on the run from King Herod, Mary and Joseph came across soldiers and Mary hid herself and Jesus in a sage bush which readily blossomed and created a canopy of protection while the soldiers passed without suspecting a thing.
Sage has one of the longest histories in medicinal herbalism. It was particularly renowned for strengthening the nervous system, improving digestion, relieving congestion and sharpening the senses.
Sage goes well in cooking with pork, beef as well as chicken so add it to any meal you like this Christmas. (Also, great as an addition to many cocktails!)
In Christian tradition rue is known as the “herb o’ grace.” It symbolizes sorrow, clear vision, and true repentance. Branches of rue were used to sprinkle holy water to illustrate God’s grace in salvation and it was said that rue protects against the Devil. It’s connection to Christmas is due to the fact that without the birth of Jesus, there would not have been salvation through grace. This Christmas, gift somebody with a pot plant of rue. Medicinally it can be used to relieve the pain associated with gout, rheumatism, and sciatica. It is also used as a digestive tonic and to stimulate the appetite. Being edible, you can add it to your salad at the beginning of your meal!
It’s often so difficult to find meaningful gifts for all the parties during the festive season. Use this opportunity to give something just a little out of the ordinary with real meaning to the reason for the season.