A couple of days ago I posted round one of herbs for Yule (orange, cranberry, pomegranate, cinnamon, and pine). For round two I’m covering a few more herbs and foods that contribute to the season–ginger, peppermint, apples, nutmeg, and (pop)corn. If you are wondering WTF on some of these, don’t worry, it will all become clear!
I’ve actually written about ginger before and, despite the fact that it was written long enough ago to be in desperate need of an edit, I’m going to quote myself a bit.
The use of ginger is believed to have originated in India or in China. Hindu epics mention it in the 4th century BC and, even today, it is an important plant in Ayurvedic medicine. Similarly, in China, ginger is mentioned in the earliest herbal and medicinal texts from about 2000 BC. Around 2000 years ago ginger became an important export from India to the Roman Empire where it was valued medicinal properties rather than its dual use as a spice. The trade of ginger and other spices into Europe was controlled by Arab merchants for hundreds of years–ginger was one of the most commonly traded spices during the Middle Ages. In England, one pound of ginger was about equal to the cost of a sheep.
Basically, this particular plant has one thing directly in common with the Yuletide. Ginger makes gingerbread, and its not Yule (or Christmas for that matter) without making a gingerbread house for the Gingerbread Walk*. As a kid, I built a house for the Gingerbread Walk, and to this day, there is nothing that says Christmahanukkwanzayule for me quite like the smell of freshly baking ginger bread (or ginger cookies, or candied ginger, or even just grated ginger for tea). Historically though, gingerbread wasn’t associated with Christmas in particular until the 18th century.
Ginger is a masculine herb corresponding with Mars or the Sun and the elements of earth or fire (depending on whose sources you look at)–personally, I think the Sun and fire capture the feel of ginger and make the most sense. Ginger is associated with magics dealing with health, prosperity and love. It can also be used, aromatherapy style to “ground” a person, while stimulating the mind and can be used medicinally to tame tummy troubles. For Yule, ginger represents the essence of the Sun, and the promise of a new year. It makes a great addition to glazes and sauces, in tea form, as candied ginger (a household treat here) for after dinner, or the ever yummy gingerbread cookies. And its scent-tacular fun to make a gingerbread house…
Of all the herbs I planned to discuss, one of the most interesting histories is that of peppermint. Peppermint as we know it today is the result of a hybridized cross of two different mint species (likely Mentha aquatica (water mint) and M. spicata (spearmint)) thought to have occurred (and been recorded) sometime in the mid to late 17th century*. Mints in general have a long history (and value) for their medicinal properties in sweetening bad breath and taming tummy troubles–making them a great flavoring choice at the turn of the 20th century for the cane-shaped sweet sticks given to kids to keep them quiet* in church.
Peppermint is widely considered to be a masculine with a planetary association of Mercury and an elemental association of fire…but I tend to work with it as if it were spearmint with more success (the correspondences for spearmint are feminine, Venus and water). Either way, peppermint can be used magically in healing and cleansing/purification spells and rituals. Other uses include consecration, dreams, healing, love/passion, happiness, abundance/prosperity, protection, psychic development, mental clarity, purification, release, divination, renewal, to increase positive energy and travel. Peppermint is pretty much a multi-purpose, get’r’done herb (I’ve written about peppermint previously, so check it out for some additional information and recipes). For Yule, peppermint can pretty much take on whatever role you want it to*, and is easy to include in recipes for sweets, or for tea, or even for actual food recipes (mint is a pretty common ingredient in Middle Eastern recipes). And peppermint products, particularly candy canes, have a huge list of crafts that can be made from them!
While we tend to think of apple as a fall tradition, historically, apple treats kept going into the winter season…including recipes for wassail, which are usually apple based. The connection between apples and the Christmas season is pretty much in line with the connection between oranges and Christmas. Simpler times had simpler treasures and simpler pleasures. Apples could be dried or canned (as apple sauce) or turned into cider or even stored in a root cellar for a time, and easily prepared into all sorts of tasty treats. Back in the day, apples and pecans or walnuts and peppermint sticks or rock candy were presents (and presents worth being excited over, I might add) in the same way another type of apple (iProduct) is today. Going a’caroling for some wassail through the community was high excitement (and wassailing the orchard trees was a related Christmas Eve tradition which originated in pagan Britain).
Apple’s correspondences list it as a feminine herb associated with the planet Venus and the element of Water and useful for love, healing, and garden magics. Apples are often associated with immortality, knowledge, and/or fertility (after all, isn’t both knowledge and fertility a sort of immortality?). For Yule, apples represent the latent fertility of the earth and the “immortality” (on a human scale) of the sun as it is reborn. Apples can be used much like oranges–dry slices for garland and wreaths, also (just because its random), whole apples can be carved and dried to make doll heads (seriously). If that is too extreme for you, just check out the apple recipes (I like this one) or make some wassail the joyful noise to go along with it!
The nutmeg tree is an evergreen, and is the source of two herbs, nutmeg and mace, both of which were quite expensive until fairly recently in history. Back in the day (the 14th century to be precise), a pound of nutmeg was worth a cow. Part of the spice trade, nutmeg was only available from a single island in the South Pacific until the British undercut the Dutch monopoly by growing it in other places–wars were actually fought over nutmeg. Oh, yeah…and nutmeg (along with clove and cinnamon) were essential ingredients in mince meat pies during the 12 days of Christmas to represent the three gifts of the Magi.
Nutmeg* is a masculine herb associated with the planet Jupiter, the element of fire and magics having to do with luck, health, prosperity, and fidelity. Also, as a seed, nutmeg has a strong association with fertility. Oh, its also purported to be an aphrodisiac. For Yule, nutmeg symbolizes the promise of the return of the Sun King…and its an interesting herb to consider one’s oaths with. Nutmeg is awesome in eggnog* (its the signature spice), has been used in at least one creation of Butterbeer, and is a common spice found in mulling mixes. But beware–nutmeg can be toxic in large quantities, it contains myristicin, a narcotic with some nasty side effects…so follow recipes and season with sense!
Like cranberries, corn* is a treat native to the Americas (and has been for about the past 4,000 years). Corn, in many forms, was a crucial component of the diet of many groups native to the Americas. The Aztecs introduced popcorn (also chocolate) to the rest of the world (via Spanish conquistadors)–since corn was an important part of their culture, popcorn was a common decoration for altars, icons, and ceremonial garb. Popcorn became popular in the 1880’s when the first commercial vendors marketed their products in the midwest, and remained a favorite treat during the Depression due to it’s affordability and during WWII due to the rationing of sugar. Somewhere along the line, popcorn became linked to Christmas by becoming a favorite tree decoration…
Corn is a feminine herb, corresponding with the element of earth and the planet Venus. It is associated with protection, luck, and divination. According to Scott Cunningham, an ear of corn can placed in the cradle of a baby for protection and corn cobs have historically been burnt on the doorstep of birthing mothers can speed up a difficult birth in some rural areas of the US. For Yule, corn is a celebration of the birth of the sun…and popcorn celebrates the transformation of a new year. Corn can be added into to your Yuletide celebration as food–cornbread, my momma’s corn casserole (recipe to come in an upcoming post), or even popcorn fortune balls. Check out this recipe for Cranberry-Orange Popcorn…you can’t get more Yule than that! Additionally, popcorn still makes some great garland for trees!
*Look! Now you know where I am from!!
*”Peppermint” has likely been around for longer–the two species in question will naturally hybridize…however there is a good chance that what is called “peppermint” in Greek, Roman, and Egyptian texts are other mint species or hybrids and not “peppermint” as we know it today.
*Check out some info on the history of the candy cane!
*I thought this was sort of cool, and didn’t have anywhere to put it…
*Mace on the other hand (just because the differences are sort of interesting) is considered to be associated with the planet Mercury, the element of air, and burned as an incense is thought to increase mental and psychic powers.
*If you are an NPR geek like me, you might recognize that this recipe comes from last week’s Science Friday. How awesome is that–eggnog microbiology!!
*Corn used to be the term given to the predominant grain of a region. In the Americas, this grain as maize, which eventually took the name corn.