Christmas Herb Folklore

There are many legends about herbs and the roles they played in the Christmas story. The dictionary defines legend as “an unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times.” The herbs that are linked to the Nativity story are often called “manger herbs” and include the following: 

The soft leaves of rosemary (rosmarinus officinalis) muffled the crackling twigs underfoot as the Holy Family traveled, thus preventing detection and ensuring a safe journey to Bethlehem. Another legend recounts that the white rosemary flower turned the color of Mary’s blue cloak when she laid it gently upon the blooming bush as the family was fleeing from Herod’s dreaded soldiers. Another belief is that a rosemary plant will grow no higher than six feet in thirty-three years, so as not to stand taller than Jesus did?

The word lavender (lavandula) is from the Latin word “lavare” meaning to wash. Legend has it that Mary laundered their clothing with this fragrant herb and used the bush as a clothes line. It further asserts that her clothes turned blue from contact with the flowers.  In medieval Latin the usage of the word lavender changed and was derived from “livere” meaning “to make bluish.” Not incidentally blue is the color accorded to the Holy Mother in paintings and stories. Lavender plants were said to spring up wherever the swaddling clothes of the Holy Child were placed. It is no surprise that lavender is the herb symbolic of cleanliness, purity and immortality.

Costmary (chrysanthemum balsamita) 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 by the Holy Mother. Culpepper, an herbalist of the 1600’s, 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.”

Rue (ruta graveolens) is the herb of grace. The genus name “ruta” is derived from the Greek word “reuo”, that means “to set free”. No herb could be more appropriate in this setting where Christians believe the grace of God was bestowed on humanity. 

The honey-like vapors activated by the heat of the body make yellow bedstraw (galium verum) a soothing, sweet smelling, 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 called “Our Lady’s Bedstraw” because of the connection with the Holy Mother who may well have slept upon it with the Christ child cradled in her arms.

Sweet woodruff (galium odoratum) is representative of humility in herbal folklore because it grows demurely close to the ground. When dried, it has the scent of new mown hay and vanilla and repels insects. It added another delightful aroma and protection to the manger setting.

May these herb connections between then and now add wonderment to your Christmas celebration!

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