The Significance of Holiday Herbs
By Brigitte Mars
The winter holidays bring traditions from at least half a dozen world cultures, blended over centuries. Evergreen trees have long been decorated with fruit, berries, candles and paper flowers to honor and ensure the continuation of the seasons. The star at the top represents the unity of all the elements. The tree decorations can be seen as offerings. The fact that evergreens retain their color all year round is a symbol of eternal life.
Pine (Pinus species) needles are rich in vitamin C and can be made into a tea. Pine is antiseptic and benefits the lungs. It is added to cough syrups for its expectorant properties and is a natural antioxidant. Pine tea can be added to a bath to relieve sore muscles. Pine sap has been used for centuries in salves for eczema and psoriasis as well as to draw out splinters.
Burning frankincense and myrrh resins help purify the air, thus when burned in public places of worship, they would help prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
Myrrh (Comniphora myrrha or absyssinica) is native to the area around the Red Sea and used as a preservative for wine and in embalming of the dead. Myrrh is a powerful disinfectant, destroying bacteria and stimulating white blood cell production when used internally. Small amounts of the resin, usually used in tincture form, have been used in ancient and modern times to treat gum infections, yeast overgrowth, impetigo, lung infections and as a liniment for arthritis. Only small amounts should be used for brief periods of time, as excessive use may be toxic.
Frankincense (Boswellia carterii or sacra), native to Arabia and East Africa has been burned as an incense to help clear the mind and respiratory tract. Throughout history, this pale colored resin has been used internally to treat dysentery, fevers, vomiting and menstrual cramps and topically in liniments to improve arthritis, athletic injuries, bruises, acne, tumors and to fight infection.
The Druids celebrated the beginning of winter by gathering mistletoe (Viscum album) and hanging it in their homes for good fortune. Considered a sacred plant, which grows as a parasite on oak and several other trees, only the highest-ranking priest collected the plant, using a gold knife. Whoever should kiss under the plant would receive a blessing from The Goddess. If enemies met under the plant, they must lay down their arms and keep a truce for the entire day.
As a medicinal herb, mistletoe (use only the European variety in small amounts and avoid the more toxic American variety) has been used to regulate blood pressure, as a nerve tonic, uterine stimulant and diuretic. It is currently used in some European clinics to treat cancer.
When we bring these colorful members of the herb realm into our homes to give grace and beauty, remember that they all have a place in history and medicine and are a reminder of our connection with nature.