And suddenly it’s December. All thoughts turn to celebrating Christmas time, feasting, exchanging gifts and spending time with loved ones. For me, bringing in greenery from outside to decorate my home and filling it with candles, fairy lights and the smell of warm spices and baking is a big part of the fun. Meanwhile, outside, the earth grows quiet; the plants slow their growth right down, conserving their energy deep in the soil.
I love the quiet of the earth at this time of the year, the sense of a rest and a pause in the cycle of life. The shortening of the days reaches its peak at the Winter Solstice, and then we can celebrate them slowly starting to lengthen again. Any herb garden is definitely resting right now, but I bring in bunches of bay leaves to use in cooking as well as decoration, and here we have a rosemary bush still with flowers, so some of that comes in too. I tie little bunches of bay and rosemary with sage and thyme to make bouquet garnis for my cooking friends.
Whilst Christmas trees are a relatively modern tradition, people have brought in evergreens to celebrate midwinter throughout history – the holly and the ivy, branches of pine and pine cones, and not forgetting the tradition of the Yule log and mistletoe. The holly tree was known to medieval monks as the holy tree, and believed to have the power of keeping away evil spirits. It has been associated with both the Green Man in pagan traditions, and Jesus in Christian beliefs, its thorny leaves and scarlet berries understood as symbols of his suffering. I just think it’s beautiful, and brings us a vibrant winter energy.
As it’s a time of the giving of precious gifts, it is perfect to think of the spices that we bake with and mull our wine or cider with during this season. Cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, nutmeg, cloves and ginger were all valuable herbal commodities not so very long ago. Indeed, wars were fought over them, and tales of the spice roads shaped history. One of my favourite childhood memories of Christmas is that of the big tins of spiced cookies and biscuits that would arrive from the Black Forest in Germany from a family friend. Covered with pictures of European fairy tales, they were filled with the smell of spices which were quite exotic and unknown to us back then. I still keep my favourite spices in my wooden “treasure chest”. How lucky we are to now take them for granted in our cupboards.
Baking with these spices fills the home with a scent that warms the heart, but they are also extremely good for us too. They all have warming properties to the body, fighting off chills and colds, and aiding the digestion. It doesn’t have to be just alcoholic drinks you make with them either – I simmer them in various combinations in apple juice, and also make my hot chocolate with them.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without mistletoe, either, but the origins of kissing under this plant are not clear – it was sacred to the ancient Druids, and also appears in old Nordic legends, associated with death and love, but our custom seemingly only began in the late 18th century when it appeared in a song. Perhaps in this year of social restrictions we will just have to view it as a sign of love and good luck to the household!
Wishing you all a wonderful time of sharing with each other and the gifts of the natural world!
By Sally Roberts