Herbal Holiday Traditions

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Winter holidays bring traditions from at least half a dozen world cultures, blended over the centuries. Here are a few reasons some herbal allies have a place in our homes this time of year.

The word perfume has its roots in the Latin "per," meaning "through" and "fumum," meaning, "smoke." Throughout history, people have burned pleasant smelling herbs, sending their prayers heavenward and thus gaining attention of the deities.

Burning frankincense and myrrh resins helped purify the air: thus, when burned in public places of worship, they would help prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

  • Myrrh (Comniphora myrrha) is native to the area around the Red Sea and used as a preservative for wine and in embalming of the dead.
  • Frankincense (Boswellia carterii), native to Arabia and East Africa has been burned as an incense to help clear the mind and respiratory tract.
  • Mistletoe (Viscum album) in Europe and (Phoradendron flavescens variety in America) is another herb associated with the holiday season. About 200 years B.C., the Druids celebrated the beginning of winter by gathering mistletoe 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. Many scholars believe mistletoe to be" The Golden Bough".

    A Nordic legend that tells of Balder, the son of Frigga (goddess of love), who was protected from harm, mistletoe being the only thing that might harm him. An arrow from mistletoe was made and Balder was mortally wounded. So grieved was Frigga, when her tears fell on the mistletoe they were transformed into the white berries, thus mistletoe became regarded as a symbol of peace and was hung high. Whoever should kiss under the plant would receive a blessing and if enemies met under the plant, they must lay down their arms and keep a truce for the entire day. Tradition dictates that with each kiss under the mistletoe, a berry is removed. The plant can be toxic if consumed, so keep away from children and pets.

  • Evergreens retain their greenery all year round making them a symbol of eternal life. Decorating trees was to honor and ensure the continuation of the seasons. It is a tradition thought to originate in Germany in the early 700's. Trees were originally decorated outdoors while still growing. The first ornaments were nuts, fruit, cookies, candles and paper flowers all offerings to thank the spirit of the tree. The star at the top is said to represent the unity of all the elements.

    For centuries, The Church discouraged the decorating of trees because of its Pagan origins. In 1643, the British Parliament abolished all Christmas festivities. However, when Queen Victoria decorated a fir tree for Windsor castle in 1841, the acceptance for this tradition was gained.

  • The "little people" were welcomed into homes by hanging sprigs of holly as hiding places during the coldest months. Holly wreaths are brought indoors to await the arrival of the Winter Elf King, a.k.a. Santa.
  • Peppermint has long been symbolic of this season as it was both hot, representing the sun and cold to denote winter. Candy cane was fashioned in more recent years, white for virginity, red symbolizing the blood of Christ and a J for Jesus.
  • Poinsettias are the only New World plant included in holiday traditions because of its red and green color at this time of year. It originates from Mexico, and according to a legend, a poor boy wanted to give a gift to the Christ child and the poinsettia blossomed at his feet. During the nineteenth century, Dr, Joel Pointsett, an amateur botanist and ambassador to Mexico, brought them back to the US and the plant was renamed in his honor.

When we bring these colorful members of the Plant Kingdom into our homes to give grace and beauty they are a reminder of our connection with nature.

What are some of your favorite herbal holiday traditions?

Brigitte Mars, a professional member of the American Herbalist Guild, is a nutritional consultant who has been working with Natural Medicine for over forty years. She teaches Herbal Medicine at Naropa University, Omega, Boulder College of Massage, and Bauman Holistic College of Nutrition. She has a weekly local radio show called "Naturally" on KGNU and a private practice. Brigitte is the author of twelve books, including The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine, Beauty by Nature, Addiction Free Naturally, Healing Herbal Teas, and Rawsome!. Click here for more healthy living articles, raw food recipes, videos, workshops, books, and more at"