Herbs With A Holiday History
By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor University of Vermont
Although any aromatic herb is ideal for holiday decorations, wreaths, and table centerpieces, four have biblical links with Christmas. Many crafts shops and florists carry these dried herb plants along with the baskets, bowls, and other trimmings needed for decorating.
ENGLISH PENNYROYAL— This perennial herb was said to have been placed in the manger on the night of the Christ child’s birth and burst into bloom the moment the child was born. English pennyroyal adds a fragrant aroma to wreaths but can be toxic if ingested, so keep out of reach of pets and children. It is often used in potpourri and cosmetics and is native to southern Europe and western Asia.
ROSEMARY–One of the most beautiful and fragrant of the seasoned herbs, rosemary, according to folklore, will bring happiness for the coming year to anyone who smells it on Christmas Eve.
During the flight into Egypt, Mary spread her child’s garments on a rosemary plant to dry. The flowers, originally white, turned blue and acquired the sweet scent they have today. Another legend claims that at midnight on Jan. 5, the “old Christmas Eve,” rosemary plants will simultaneously burst into flower in celebration of Christmas. Rosemary plants add attractiveness and fragrance to holiday wreaths and are especially suitable for tussle mussies, which are small bouquets made with dried flowers, doilies, and ribbons for use at individual place settings on the holiday dinner table.
WILD THYME–This pungent herb, a member of the mint family, was collected from the fields outside of Bethlehem to make a soft bed for Mary during the birth of her child. It is thought to have antiseptic properties and was burned as incense later in history by the Greeks. Today thyme is a popular culinary seasoning but can be used in dried flower arrangements, bouquets, and potpourri during the holiday season.
LAVENDER–The Virgin Mary is said to have dried her newborn’s swaddling clothes by spreading them on a bed of wild lavender. This herb, also of the mint family, grows as a small evergreen shrub. It has grey-green leaves, light purple flowers, and a sweet floral scent. When dried it can be used whole for wreaths and centerpieces or crushed to use in sachets for closets or drawers or to scent a bath.