Herbs for Yule

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 thatetymologically, 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 ina 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 pomandersbaked into something yummy, turned into awesome drinks, thepeel from oranges can be added into potpourris, and slices of oranges can be driedfor 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.

Ginger

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

Peppermint

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!

Apples

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 slicesfor 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!

Nutmeg

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 isawesome 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!

Corn

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!

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.
  • 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 recipecomes 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.
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