HISTORICAL HERBS AND SPICES OF CHRISTMAS

By: Donna Easto, C.H., H.C., M.H, H.Ed.

Frankincense and Myrrh:  Our modern understanding of the gifts of the Wise Men focuses mostly on their monetary value.  However, there’s an even more important reason that the Magi chose these plant-derived treasures as fitting gifts for the baby Jesus.  Traded in North Africa and the Middle East for more than 5,000 years, the Wise Men’s offerings of frankincense and myrrh came with a long medicinal history.  Both are aromatic resins derived from trees. Their proven antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties made them favourite and effective remedies for ailments as diverse as toothaches and leprosy. Ancient Egyptians employed them for incense, insect repellent, perfume, medicine to heal wounds, and as vital ingredients in the embalming process.  Cosmetically, myrrh oil provided a rejuvenating facial treatment. Frankincense was charred and ground into the dark kohl eyeliner commonly worn by Egyptian women.  According to the Hebrew Bible, frankincense and myrrh were used as holy incense ritually burned in Jerusalem’s sacred temples.

Gold, too, played a health role in the ancient world; Romans treated skin problems with gold salves. Cleopatra is reputed to have slept in a pure gold face mask to maintain her legendary beauty.  Today, isotope gold-198 is used in the treatment of some cancers.  Gold salts which are easily processed in the body and have anti-inflammatory properties are found in arthritis drugs. 

Gold, frankincense and myrrh – the gifts of the Magi represented expensive trade goods desired and revered as practical healing medicines from the natural world.  Prophetic gifts for Jesus, the healer.

Rosemary:  Need some help in finding those presents you’ve hidden?  Rosemary to the rescue.  In the ancient world, Greek scholars hung rosemary around their necks during examinations to improve their results. More recently, studies have shown that sniffing Rosemary essential oil enhances memory.  Not to get too technical, but that’s because the oil (used topically only) helps prevent the breakdown of a brain chemical important to thinking, concentration and memory.

Sage:  Another culinary herb associated with improving memory.  To the Romans, it was a sacred herb, its Latin name salvere means “to be saved.”  For some women, it may seem salvation when it comes to the treatment of hot flashes and night sweats.  If you’re a lady of a certain age and hot flashes are ruining your Christmas, try turning some of that organic sage you bought for the stuffing into tea.  Let it cool before drinking.  Sage in minimal amounts found as a seasoning in foods is generally safe.  But, it’s not for use in pregnancy, and never take Sage oil internally – it’s toxic.

Bay:  In ancient times, bay (Laurus nobilis) leaves represented renewal.  The Romans hung a wreath of bay on doors at the New Year to bring good luck and adorned the heads of heroes with a Laurel wreath. Your noble head may not be dandruff free by December 25, but this homemade brew may improve the health of your hair and hopefully eliminate dandruff.  Add a handful of crushed bay leaves to one litre of very hot (just boiled) water. Cover and let steep for 20 minutes. Strain, allow to cool and apply. You might want to leave it in your hair for an hour or so before rinsing.

Cinnamon:  A tasty cooking spice, it’s also one of the world’s most important medicinal spices. Moses decreed that holy anointing oil should consist of both sweet and cassia cinnamons.  Cinnamon has provided relief from colds or flu as well as problems of the digestive system for centuries. New studies suggest cinnamon contains natural compounds that have anti-microbial and anti-clotting properties that may inhibit the development of Alzheimer’s disease, stabilize blood sugar and improve diabetes. Most recently, a study showed that participants chewing cinnamon flavoured gum showed improved attention, working memory, virtual recognition memory and motor speed.

Ginger:  In powdered form, it’s used in holiday recipes from cakes to cookies to meats.  Highly prized as a medicine during the Middle Ages, ginger root was considered a gift from the Garden of Eden. An excellent remedy for digestive complaints caused by over-eating, it’s the perfect spice to have on hand on Christmas day. It helps move food through the digestive tract and reduces irritation.  Drinking a cup of ginger tea, sucking on ginger candy, or drinking “real” ginger ale may be as little as is needed to soothe your tummy.