Probably everyone is familiar with the Biblical story of the three kings and their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Frankincense and myrrh gum are both scented plant materials that could be classified as herbs, and are readily available today. These could be used to make a ‘potpourri of three kings’, blending these two with gold yarrow. Yarrow also has Christmas significance in its own right. It is often called carpenter’s weed (for its purported folk-healing powers for cuts) and is associated with Joseph the carpenter, Jesus’ earthly father.
Rosemary has one of the nicest of the Christmas legends. It is said that rosemary flowers were originally white, but the Virgin Mary laid her blue cloak upon the fragrant branches and the flowers took on the soft, clear-blue color of her sacred garment. Until the 20th century, rosemary was a popular Christmas evergreen. A gilded rosemary sprig was a treasured gift. It fell out of favor and is making a comeback, now popular in holiday wreathes and as small Christmas trees and topiaries. Perhaps this herb, which symbolizes remembrance, can help us in these commercialized times to remember the meanings of these winter celebrations.
Holly was used by ancient Druids in rituals at the time of the winter solstice. Like many other traditions, the early Christians adapted this one to their own practices during the formation of the Roman church. (Note: Beware, holly berries are very toxic, especially to children.)
Costmary, or alecost, leaves were used to spice up the holiday ale, or wassail, in old Europe.
Ivy and bay laurel were used, along with other greens, to celebrate winter solstice in early Europe. Ivy symbolizes friendship. Bay laurel is associated with Apollo, god of light, as a reminder that the long winter would soon melt into spring.
Rue, a symbol of virginity and dedication, is typically connected with the Swedish celebration of Santa Lucia Day, December 13th, when it’s woven into the garlands crowning young ladies.
In Greece, a cross wrapped in basil garland was used by priests to expel evil from a house during the Christmas season.
Thyme symbolizes the bravery of the Christ child.
Santolina, the herb of fair linen, symbolizes swaddling cloth.
There’s more herbs and more stories, but then we’d have a book and not a blog. I hope this entices you to add a few herbs to your celebrations. Herbs are best when they’re part of our life every day.