Christmas Herbs

Leaves of costmary or alecost were used to add spice to holiday ale (also known as "wassail") in olden Europe, while bay laurel, along with other forms of greenery, have been used in decorations since ancient European times to help celebrate the Winter Solstice. Bay laurel is associated with Apollo, God of Light, and serves as a reminder that the long Winter will soon melt into Spring.

Frankincense and myrrh were two of the gifts offered by the Magi to the Christ Child (the other being gold). Frankincese pods and myrrh gum are both scented plant materials which may be classified as herbs. Frankincense, also called Olibanum, has been used for centuries in religious rites and as a medicinal treatment for both internal and external ailments. It is a resin found in small thorny trees known as Boswellia Thurifera which grow in Africa, Yemen and countries around the Red Sea. The sap oozes from the trees, forming small white pod which harden upon contact with the air and turn yellow. These pods are then burned for their aroma. The oil of frankincense is calming and soothing and deepens breathing.

Myrrh was used by the Egyptians and Hebrews for incense, cosmetics, perfumes and medicines. It has also been used as an embalming tool. Like frankincense, myrrh was once considered to be a rare treasure. Again, it is a resin and is derived from the shrub Commiphora, which is found in Arabia and Abyssinia. Another name for garden myrhh is "sweet cicely." The plant has fern-like foliage with dull white flowers and grows to be approximately three feet tall. Myrrh is an effective medicine for treating sore throats, infected gums, thrush and athletes foot. It contains cleansing agents, useful in countering poisons found in the body, and helps to stimulate the circulatory system.

Frankincense and myrrh are becoming available to day through dealers in potpourri materials. Blended with gold yarrow, they are used to create the "Potpourri of Three Kings." Yarrow also bears signficance in the Christmas tradition in its own right. Sometimes called "carpenter's weed" (because of its purported folk-healing powers against cuts), it is associated with Joseph the Carpenter, who was the earthly father of Jesus.


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