Twelve Herbs of Christmas
Yuletide is unimaginable without pungent, wondrous, traditions

Christmas is just round the corner and all those wonderful imaginings flood in of cold days made cosy by open fires, luscious food, glad tidings and very jolly festivity.

No, of course the reality doesn’t always match up:  it’s hard work, overly commercial, rarely peaceful. We worry too much about presents , about whether little Johnnie will smear brandy butter over Auntie Pip’s party dress like last year, or if firm feminist Grannie Fanny - after indulging the sherry bottle - will get truculent about the fluffy pink things young Bella is receiving.

Christmas can turn nasty, no doubt about it. But, well, go on, there’s something about it, isn’t there?  Something that it sneaks in on us and doesn’t want to let go – something heart- warming, exciting, climactic even: the end of a year, the chance to reflect a little perhaps; the tradition in each of our families and communities, and our country.

Christmas – or rather yule - goes back much, much further than a mere 2,000 years of course. Back into the fogginess of early human existence, of pagan, tribal rituals, sun worship, earth worship.  It is the marking of mid-winter, the hemisphere’s turn towards a new season of new hope. And along with that annual event the rituals grew.

Two thousand years ago, when Jesus entered the picture, the Romans were big on celebrating Saturnalia– and what a time they had! Temple sacrifice, banqueting, gift-giving, carnival, gambling and a time when masters served their slaves at table: faintly familiar?

Plants were, inevitably, central to survival and ritual from the prehistoric era, and still are today.  Certain herbs gained reputations for medicinal power and thus magic influence.  Locked into this tradition are the herbs and spices that we now - even in our urban, computerised sophistication - still hold precious. They are an intrinsic part of our Christmas:  ceremony, decoration and food.

Who wants Christmas dinner without ginger or cinnamon, cloves or nutmeg, rosemary or sage?  Yuletide is unimaginable without a decorated tree and a wreath on the front door.  The Christmas story itself would be impossible without frankincense and myrrh (never mind the gold).

Frankincense (the old joke about the schoolboy bringing a gift to the Virgin in a Nativity play with the words:  ‘Frank sent this’ never fails, does it?) and myrrh were, are, the treasured resins that seeps from trees. Both have been used for at least 5,000 years in medicine, perfumery and, of course, in incense. Babies were anointed with them because they represented the powers of strength and survival – no wonder the Three Wise Men brought them along.

Ceremony done with, along comes food.  But it’s worth remembering that, delicious as they are, our ‘traditional’ Christmas spices have powers far beyond the culinary. Ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg were so highly prized among ancient nations that they were regarded as gifts fit for monarchs and indeed for gods.  Why else, perhaps, would they offer such magical remembrances in the middle of the darkest time of the year? And why else would men die to possess them? Our celebratory spices have caused empires to be built, and savagery to be inflicted.

My favourite, ginger, endlessly versatile in sweet or savoury, is always slightly exotic however familiar we are with it and no wonder. In India it’s called ‘universal medicine’:  it deadens pain, stimulates blood flow, soothes stomachs and fights nausea, banishes colds, fevers and sore throats, and could possibly treat cancer. Its close partner, deliciously sweet, mouth-refreshing cardamom, is a reed-like herb that grows up to 13 feet tall. It has , like ginger, medicinal benefits for the stomach and digestive system .  Both are also famed aphrodisiacs.

Cinnamon, currently very fashionable in hot chocolate and cereals, is the curled up inner bark of –yes -  up to a dozen  different species of tree. Now we find it in the supermarket, powdered, and perhaps rather emasculated. In its time it was immensely expensive and medicinal: used to kill infection, improve circulation, relieve pain; combat tension, anxiety or even chronic fatigue.

Cloves and nutmeg each have their forceful affects too:  digestifs that kill bacteria, relieve nausea and pain. Cloves were also used to stimulate uterine contractions, ease arthritis, stop migraines, and tackle colds and allergies. And they are supposed to help cramping, gas, colic, malaria, tuberculosis, scabies, and improve the memory.  Nutmeg once came only from one small island in Indonesia called Banda. The Dutch in the 1620s were so keen to keep control that it massacred numbers of native people and enslaved the rest; their domination continued to be absolute, and terrifyingly ruthless, for centuries to come.  But nutmeg has its own revenge:  it can be a psychoactive drug instigating hallucinations, delirium, headaches – and sometimes euphoria – that can last for days.

But back to jollity: the final five of my 12 Herbs of Christmas are often seen as decorative rather than culinary. There’s pine, of course – Christmas to the British core since the mid-19th century when Prince Albert introduced it from Germany where it had long symbolised purification, and warding off evil.  All very pagan but then so are the origins of using holly, ivy, myrtle and bay leaf.

Holly, according to ancient myth in England, represented the masculine element, perhaps because of its prickles and harder leaves, while ivy represented the. Whereas  holly might have provided food for birds it gave little to humans.  Ivy, though, offered all sorts of medicinal help for disorders of theliver, muscle spasms, rheumatism, bronchitis, for burns, calluses, cellulitis, swelling, and much more besides. No wonder it’s associated with the female!

Bay and myrtle, deliciously scented evergreens, excellent in roast meats and stews, have their magical myths too: myrtle was sacred to the Greek goddessesAphrodite (love and beauty)  and Demeter (harvest and fertility), the Romans saw it as sacred to Venus. In Judaism, myrtle speaks for those who have good deeds to their credit despite religious ignorance.  Here it is always in Royal wedding bouquets because it represents love.  Leaves of the bay tree – laurus nobilis - symbolised strength and victory in both ancient Greece and Rome, forming  the famous laurel wreath awarded at to athletes, soldiers and politicians (think Caesar). In the Bible it was often an emblem of prosperity and fame; in the Christian tradition, it represents the resurrection of Christ.

No wonder, with their flavours, aromas, myths, medicinal powers and symbolism that all these plants are associated with the year’s most potent feast. December, for Christians, brings the hope of new life and redemption; Moslems greatly respect Jesus as an important Prophet;  for pagans, the turning of the year means renewal; for Jews it is the time of Hannukah, the festival of light;  and Buddhists too have their Day of Enlightenment. These are not so distant, so distinctive, so alien to one another that any can deny or dismiss the other.  Maybe that is the true spirit of Christmas – and the herbs and spices we use from all across the world are a splendid reminder of it. Happy Christmas.


The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly

Holly standeth in the hall fair to behold,
Ivy stands without the door; she is full sore a cold

Holly and his merry men, they dancen and they sing;
Ivy and her maidens, they weepen and they wring.

Ivy hath a lybe, she caught it with the cold,
So may they all have, that with Ivy hold.


Click image to enlarge

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