A Yuletide Herbal

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If this is the first time you’ve visited my site, and you’ve made it here from the blogging party page…WELCOME!  If you are one of my regular readers, WELCOME BACK!!

I’m getting a bit of a late start here to kick off the 21 Days of Yule Blogging Party, hosted by the Domestic Witch…this post was intended for<s>yesterday</s> Saturday (I started typing then, but life has a way of getting in the way).  Hubby and I had a (much needed) date night instead, followed by some hardcore housecleaning, some family time and then back to work for both of us.  Better late than never!

Like most Pagans I know, The Hubby and I both started out life in Christian families (his decidedly more conservative than mine).  As a result in the similarity in the symbolism and iconography of the two holidays, we’ve chosen to graft some of our better family traditions onto our family celebration of The Longest Night.  We’ve also adopted other traditions that we have encountered, as well as adapted some traditions to better the raising of our witchlets.  Over the next three weeks, I’ll try to hit some of the highlights (including a video instructable from Chickadee), as well as some other fun stuff!

To start this party off, I figured I’d talk about the flavors of Yule–from gingerbread to mulled wine, baking pies in the oven and fresh-cut boughs on the mantle, whether someone is Christian or Pagan or something in between or neither, there are certain herbs (and other foods) that make the tastes and smells that we associate with this time of year:

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our simmer pot, before Hubby took the kids out to gather some pine needles–our December “incense” is the peel+a slice or four of orange, a handful of cranberries, 1/2 stick of cinnamon (crushed) and a couple of bunches of pine needles

Oranges 

If you ever read The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, you might remember that oranges have a long tradition as a Christmas gift–a century later, and I was still getting an orange in my stocking as a child.  It has been suggested that the tradition of the Christmas orange was inspired by the myth of St. Nicholas who gifted impoverished maidens with a dowry of gold coins or gold balls and the improved availability of oranges*. What you may not know is that etymologically, the name of an orange in a number of languages, is a variation of “golden apple”…there is an even longer tradition of golden apples in a number of mythologies.

Oranges are considered to be a masculine herb associated with the sun, the element fire, and with love, divination, luck, and money.  For Yule, oranges are both a visual and symbolic representation for the rebirth of the sun after The Longest Night–the return of warmth and fertility to the earth.  Oranges turned into pomanders, baked into something yummy, turned into awesome drinks, the peel from oranges can be added into potpourris, and slices of oranges can be dried for all sorts of crafty stuff.

Cinnamon

If you were to ask me, the origin of cinnamon’s association with the winter holiday season is probably connected to cinnamon’s use in  as a very expensive flavoring and preservative in meats.  Cinnamon was actually worth 15 times the equivalent weight in silver during first century A.D.  Cinnamon is produced from the bark of an evergreen tree, the inner bark of the upper tree is used to make cinnamon sticks, while the inner bark of the lower tree is powdered to make ground cinnamon.  What most of us purchase at the store is usually cassia, a related species of the same genus, rather than ‘true’ cinnamon–from a magical and culinary standpoint this doesn’t matter too much, but if you are someone that is interested in the medicinal or anti-microbial properties of cinnamon, its a good idea to familiarize yourself with the differences.

Interestingly, cinnamon shares some of the correspondences of oranges–it is a masculine herb,  associated with the sun and the element fire.  Cinnamon is also associated with love, passion, healing, and consecration*.  Traditionally, cinnamon has also been used in incenses and potions, particularly those that increase ability or power (practically speaking, cinnamon smell has been shown to increase mental alertness, task performance  and motivation).  As an herb for Yule, cinnamon adds warmth and spark to celebrations and rituals, and is the perfect choice to help consecrate sacred space for this day.  A cinnamon broom (create your own) makes for a lovely house cleansing at this time of year, and cinnamon oil has the added practical benefit of anti-bacterial properties!

Cranberries

The cranberry is one of the few native fruits that have become a commercial crop.  Native Americans used cranberries as a food staple, a clothing dye, and for medicinal purposes.  They were introduced to early settlers and taken to EnglandMariners and whalers in North America carried cranberries to prevent scurvy, and it was a key component in pemmican (a recipe), a high energy food invented by various Native American tribes and later adopted by fur traders and explorers.  Because cranberries require unusual conditions (in terms of farming), they weren’t cultivated until 1816.  Cranberries grow in bogs and are harvested by flooding the fields…interestingly, they do not have to be replanted–cranberry vines (or shrubs) can live for many years (they are an evergreen plant) if they are undamaged (there are 150 year old cranberry vines in cultivation).  As they are part of the fall harvest and easily preserved, it makes sense that they have become a traditional part of the fall and winter holiday seasons.

Cranberries lack a history when it comes to traditional correspondences, but have been interpreted (and I totally agree) as being a feminine herb associated with the element of water.  As such, cranberries seem to share some of the magical properties of other feminine water herbs–assisting in communication and dealing with emotions (Mrs. B has suggested serving cranberry to help form bonds between people at the Thanksgiving dinner table).  Cranberries are quite tasty in a variety of foods (often with oranges…here’s one I want to try!) and are often used in holiday crafts, including the ever-popular popcorn and cranberry garland.

Pomegranate

Pomegranate is a more modern addition to the winter holiday traditions in the US (they start popping up in grocery stores around here around Samhain and are still available for Yule)–it wasn’t until very recently that they were widely available on our side of the pond*, though they have a long history in the Middle East, India,  and Mediterranean regions (which have the climate to grow trees that will bear fruit).  In ancient Egypt the pomegranate was a symbol of prosperity and in Greek* mythology the pomegranate is the fruit that keeps Persephone in Hades, causing the Demeter’s grief which fuels the seasons (its also a symbol of Hera.  For Hindus it symbolizes prosperity and fertility and is associated with Bhudevi (an Earth goddess and form of Lakshmi) and Ganesha.  Judaism also contains quite a bit of pomegranate symbolism, as does the religious iconography of early Christianity, and it also shows up in a number of mentions of the Qur’an.

Magically, pomegranate is considered to be masculine herb, associated with fire and the planets Mercury and Saturn.  It has a long association in a number of cultures with prosperity, fertility/creation, luck, and also in divination. Herbalist Paul Beyerl has also suggested eating a pomegranate as part of the ritual feast as a vehicle for opening oneself to the ecstatic mysteries of those goddesses associated with it.  For Yule, pomegranate is a symbol of  death and rebirth, and of the slumbering earth and its promise of prosperity.  Pomegranate can be used in a variety of recipes, or dried for ornamentation…and pomegranate motifs just make for some beautiful decor!

Pine

Evergreens are one of the enduring symbols of winter…largely because they endure through the winter.  The idea of using an entire tree to decorate for the winter holiday season dates back to the Renaissance era in Germany*, though evergreens have long been a symbol of eternal life in a myriad of cultures.  While pine and fir are the trees most commonly used trees commercially, pine trees have a wider range of uses that make them perfect for this time of year (and are more abundant in my neck of the woods for foraging).

Pine is generally considered to be a masculine herb, associated with Mars and the element of air, and useful in healing, fertility, exorcism and money magics.  Pine needles can be burnt in the home to cleanse the home of negativity, taking the place of sage (a preference of mine, due to newly developed allergies).  Additionally, the needles can be brewed into a tea loaded with vitamin C and vitamin A with decongestant and expectorant properties (plus it makes a lovely smell when brewing). Pine nuts are delicious in stuffing (although expensive), pine cones are great for crafting (especially with kids), and the boughs are wonderfully fragrant decoration.  Pine is a wonderful plant for Yule to keep negativity at bay, and to invite prosperity in for the upcoming year.  Plus it just smells good.

Check back later for part II…Another Yuletide Herbal: Ginger, peppermint, apples, nutmeg, and (pop)corn!

*Notes:

  • In the 1880′s, oranges became fairly easy to come by in the US, where they were produced in Florida and California and fairly easily shipped across the country’s transcontinental rail.
  • Cinnamon is an herb that had a religious significance for a number of cultures–the Romans, the Egyptians, and even the Hebrews (check out Exodus 30).
  • Pomegranate was introduced to the Western Hemisphere by Spanish colonialists in the Caribbean and to the United States by a few planters such as Thomas Jefferson (who planted some at Monticello).
  • In modern Greece, there is a Christmas tradition to “…hang a pomegranate above the front door of their house. By the New Year, when the fruit will have dried, Greeks throw it on the ground so it breaks, and step into their house on their right foot. According to tradition, this brings good luck for the year to come.” (source)
  • The popularity of the Christmas tree in Germany seems to be (at least in part) a Protestant reaction to the creche kept in Catholic homes!  The eventual spread in popularity was due to its adoption as a custom by royal families, in particular Queen Victoria and Prince Albert…Godey’s Ladies Book, a publication in the US, first printed an illustration of The Royal Tree in 1850–within 20 years it was an American custom.

About thalassa musings

I'm a occasionally-doting wife, damn proud momma of two adorable children, veteran of the United States Navy, part-time semi-steampunk hausfrau, a bohemian beach addict from middle America, Civil War reenactor and Victorian natural history aficionado, a canoeing and kayaking and paddleboarding fanatic, a Unitarian Universalist and pantheistic Pagan, and a kitchen witch, devotee of various aquatic deities, and practitioner of Spiritual Bioregionalism. View all posts by thalassa musings

3 responses to “A Yuletide Herbal

  • Alyss

    What a great post. Oranges are not really a part of my family’s holiday tradition, but I do love the scenes in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books where they are such coveted treats. Simpler times :)

    I’m blogging my way to the darkest night, as well with my new blog City and Sky Advent. I’d love for you to check it out – it will reflect my eclectic Quaker Pagan Sciency path but should be fun and light enough for everyone.

    I don’t often comment, but I do read your posts regularly. Happy holidays and thanks for everything!

    • thalassa

      Thank you so much for the kind words. I loved the Little House books as a kid (though, re-reading them as a mom has me cringing at how un-PC they are at times, lol)…sometimes though, I think maybe they were on to something with the simplicity factor. And then I think about the reality of diseases that could have been easily cured with the right meds, plumbing, etc and well… Thank goodness for modern complexity!

      Now I’ll have to check out your new blog!

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