When we think of Christmas, we think of the three wise men and maybe mistletoe. But, there are actually eight Christmas herbs. These are: frankincense, myrrh, mistletoe, holly, poinsettia, pine, peppermint, and cinnamon. On my podcast, Crunchy Christian Podcast, I cover seven of these in depth over the holiday season.
When we think of these plants, certain traditions often come to mind. We affiliate frankincense and myrrh with the three wise men, mistletoe with stealing a kiss, and holly with wreaths. We decorate a pine or fir tree and place poinsettias all around the church sanctuary. And, we use cinnamon and peppermint in our baked goods and to scent our homes.
But did you know these Christmas herbs have some peculiar traditions, habits, and uses?
Christmas Herbs: 10 Weird Things You Didn’t Know
Frankincense comes from parts of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. It is a resin obtained from the sap of the Boswellia carterii tree. The harvesting of frankincense was a carefully guarded secret. And since nearly everyone used it in religious ceremonies, trading in it made the Arabians very rich. What you might not know is that the ancient Egyptians used frankincense in their kohl eyeliner! Not sure why. It’s not typically used for the skin or eyes. Maybe they thought it would enhance their connection with their gods since they thought the aroma of burning frankincense pleased them.
Myrrh also comes from parts of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. It, too, is a resin but is obtained from the sap of the Commiphora myrrha tree. It, too, made the Arabians rich. When we think of myrrh, we often associate it with death and burial. And, the ancients used it in burial preparations. However, you might not know that they incorporated myrrh into their premarital bridal preparations. They would perfume the young bride’s skin with myrrh and other oils. Interesting choice of oils for such a celebratory occasion. But, maybe they chose it because they believed myrrh purified the body. And they would be right! Recent research shows that myrrh has incredible anti-bacterial properties that helped cleanse the sanctuary and slow the decay of dead bodies.
Mistletoe: One of the Quintessential Christmas Herbs
Did you know that mistletoe is a parasitic plant? Yes. Viscum album, is a native evergreen shrub of Europe which mostly grows on hickory, pecan, oaks, red maple, and black gum trees. Because it is a parasite, it can kill the host tree. However, perhaps because it is an evergreen parasite, it has been known to bloom even in winter, unlike its host tree. There are several conflicting myths about how mistletoe came to be associated with love and kissing. But, the Greeks and Celts both thought it promoted fertility.
Holly, or Ilex aquifolium, has long been associated with Christmas. The tradition of spreading boughs of holly probably started with the Romans and their festival of Saturnalia that coincided with Christmastime. Holly was also part of the Druid belief that evergreen boughs protected their homes during the long winter months. However it started, did you know that an old legend associates it with the footsteps of Christ? It is said that wherever Christ walked, Holly sprang up. And, its thorny leaves and scarlet berries symbolize his sufferings. That’s why, in some parts of Europe, it is called Christ’s Thorn.
Poinsettia: Christmas Herbs from Mexico
The Poinsettia or Euphorbia pulcherrima is native to Mexico and was highly prized by the Aztecs. They used it to make a purple dye and for treating fevers. It is a beautiful plant, but did you know that the red bracts we usually think of as flowers are actually leaves? The flowers are not very distinctive. And, the reason why we decorate our homes with them at Christmastime is because that is the only time they bloom/grow.
Trees from the Pinus species have always played an important role in Christmas celebrations. People bring an evergreen tree indoors as a symbol of hope and life during the dark winter days. You might know that turpentine and tar come from pine resin. But, did you know that both of these have been used in veterinary practice? Yes! Veterinarians have used a diluted form of turpentine to kill worms and other parasites, especially in horses. And, tar oil has been used to treat mange.
Mentha piperita, or peppermint, has a long history of use. However, the peppermint candy cane associated with Christmas is a recent phenomenon. It started with handmade canes, but became industrialized by a Catholic priest, Gregory Harding Keller, in the 1950’s! That’s right. This priest partnered up with his brother-in-law, Bob McCormack, who was the original candy maker, selling more candy canes from his little shop than anyone else in the world. Together, they made candy canes a permanent part of Christmas.
Did you know that Cinnamon is harvested from the inner bark of the Cinnamomum cassia or C. verum tree? Yes, those rolled cinnamon sticks are actually bark. Another interesting fact about Cinnamon and its association with fall, especially fall holidays, is its effectiveness against germs. Cinnamon research shows that Cinnamon oil is very effective against several common microbes. No wonder it is commonly incorporated into fall foods, beverages, and Christmas body care products. It’s just the thing for the time of year when illness seems more prevalent.