Herb legends of Christmastide!
There are many legends about herbs and the roles they played in the Christmas story. We will explore some of these charming tales in this column. I hope they will add a new dimension to your celebration and a connection with past celebrants. These sacred herbs, which are linked to the Nativity, are often called manger herbs.
Rosemary, the herb of remembrance, was silent underfoot as the Holy Family traveled. Its soft, pine shaped leaves muffled the crackling twigs beneath preventing detection, and providing a safe journey to Bethlehem. Another legend recounts that the white rosemary flower was turned to the color of Mary's blue cloak when she laid it gently upon the blooming bush. This occurred as the family was fleeing from Herod's dreaded soldiers.
I wonder if it is true that a rosemary plant will grow no higher than six feet in thirty-three years, so as not to stand taller than Christ. This is another belief held by people for many centuries. My rosemary plant has not attained near that height in ten years! Has yours?
The word lavender is from the Latin word "lavare", meaning to wash. Legend has it that Mary washed their clothing with this fragrant herb and hung them on the bush to dry. It further asserts that her clothes turned blue from contact with the flowers. In Medieval Latin the usage of the word lavender changed. It was derived from "livere", which meant "to make bluish". Not incidentally, blue is the color accorded to the Holy Mother. Lavender plants were said to spring up wherever the swaddling clothes of the Holy Child were washed. It is no wonder that lavender was designated the herb symbolic of cleanliness, purity and immortality.
Costmary with its sweet balsam scent is commonly called Bible leaf or Our Lady's balsam. There are stories of its use as a healing ointment in Biblical times. Culpepper, an herbalist of the 1600s, gives the following recipe for a healing salve. "Costmary makes an excellent salve ... being boiled with oil of olive, and Adder's tongue with it, and after it is strained put a little wax, rosin and turpentine to bring it to convenient body." Culpepper compares adder's tongue to water plantain. Herbalists of today recommend plantain for insect bites and sunburns. I wonder if they use a version of Mary's healing balm.
Rue is the herb of grace. The genus name "ruta" is derived from the Greek word "reuo", which means "to set free". No herb could be more appropriate in this setting where Christians believe the grace of God was bestowed on humanity. At one time brushes made of rue were used to sprinkle holy water before a Roman Catholic High Mass. This ancient herb played an important role in this ceremony.
The honey like vapors activated by the heat of the body make "bedstraw" a soothing, sweet smelling and comfortable resting place. It is said that the original white flowers turned their present golden color because of the manger's special visitors. It is often c alled "Our Lady's Bedstraw" because of the connection with the Holy Mother who may have slept upon it.
Sweet woodruff is representative of humility in herbal folklore because it grows demurely close to the ground. It has the scent of new mown hay and vanilla. Here is another delightful aroma added by an herb to the manger setting. There were no unpleasant stable odors as the cattle were lowing and the baby awoke.
All of these herbs are traditionally included in Advent Wreaths. Others which may be added are horehound for good health; thyme for courage; and sage for esteem. Making an herb bouquet or wreath is an ancient and thoughtful way to wish loved ones the blessings of the season.
The dictionary defines legend as "an unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times." May these herb connections between then and now, add depth and sparkle to your Christmastime!