ceremony-of-the-boars-head

ceremony-of-the-boars-head

By Wendy Hughes
With Christmas nearly upon is I thought I would take a look at Rosemary, the Christmas Herb. Gardeners, poets, housewives and herbalists alike love the aromatic herb rosemary. The name comes from the Latin ros marinus, meaning ‘dew of the sea,’ which gives us a hint to its Mediterranean coastal origins. It’s a member of the mint family, and today it is best known as a culinary herb for flavouring lamb, or as an ingredient of bouquet garni. What may not be so well known is the long history and special connections relating to Christmas.
In medieval times it was used in Christmas decorations, and the poet Robert Herrick, referring to the end of the Christmas season in a poem wrote:
‘Down with Rosemary and so
Down with bays and mistletoe,
Down with holly, ivy and all
Wherewith ye drest the Christmas Hall.’

rosemary

rosemary

It is also considered a holy herb, and one legend that the Virgin Mary, during her flight into Egypt, caught her cloak upon a bush of rosemary, the flowers of which were then pure white. But ever since that day the flowers have been an exquisite blue – the colour of Mary’s cloak. Another legend explains how the plant’s small flowers turned from white to blue when the Virgin Mary draped her cloak over a hedge of rosemary to dry during the flight into Egypt to protect the baby Jesus from Herod’s wicked clutches. It is also believed that the herb will only grow in height for thirty-three years, the exact number of years that Christ spent of earth. After that, it will expand in breadth only.

boars-head-with-rosemary

boars-head-with-rosemary

The ceremony of bringing in the boar’s head to the table at Christmas, during medieval times was also accompanied by the carol:
‘The boar’s head in hand bear I,
With garland gay and rosemary.’
It is thought that the Romans introduced the plant into Britain, and for this reason the shrub has been planted in the borders of the garden at Fishbourne Palace, a Roman Villa, in West Sussex as a constant reminder to visitors of its origins. It also had a strong association with lovers’ fidelity and memory, therefore the Ancient Greeks used it in their wedding ceremonies. Sprigs of rosemary were dipped in gold, tied with a ribbon and given to the wedding guests. This symbolised that although the bride and groom were leaving their friends and family to start a new life, they would never forget their loved ones. Dried rosemary was also laid in the bed linen to ensure faithfulness, also if a bride gave her husband a sprig to hold on their wedding night would ensure that eh remained faithful.

roasted-vegetables-with-rosemary

roasted-vegetables-with-rosemary

According to another legend, if a man doesn’t like the scent of rosemary, he will not be a very good lover. Napoleon is said to have loved rosemary, and Josephine reputed to have asked Napoleon to wash in rosemary water before entering her chamber. It is claimed that Napoleon obliged and used 162 bottles of rosemary water in the first three months of his marriage!

rosemary-and-its-associations-with-Mary

rosemary-and-its-associations-with-Mary

Throughout the centuries it was cultivated in monastery gardens, and along borders of the more formal herb gardens of the eighteenth centuries. Medieval monks used the herb bother for culinary and medicinally purposes, looking to it as a cure for stomach and muscle spasms,
headaches and depression. Because of its fragrance, rosemary was included amongst the
herbs to be scattered on floors of banqueting halls, cottages and castles, where the treading of
feet would release the aroma, and mask many of the unpleasant smells associated with the
Middle Ages.

rosemary-and-lamb

rosemary-and-lamb

Those who have made the journey to Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon will
know that the garden behind the house contains all the flowers that the poet mentioned in his
plays. There in early summer can be seen gray-green foliage and the bluish-purple flowers of
the rosemary, which Ophelia said, ‘That’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.’
It is used as an ingredient of perfume, pot-pourri, and bath essence, and it is claimed that
anyone taking a bath in rosemary water will be made young again! By infusing the leaves and
flowers and adding borax a hair shampoo for treating dandruff can be made. Whilst the oil from
its leaves was used for making hair pomades, and ladies who wished to have a fair complexion
washed their faces in Rosemary leaves boiled in white wine! To reduce infection it was often
burned in sickrooms, and was even used as incense when the more costly variety was not
available. Apparently, moths and other vermin did not enjoy this herb, and it was placed in
clothes and books to keep them away.

rosemary-wreath

rosemary-wreath

It has long been regarded as the emblem of remembrance and faithfulness. And it is said to
strengthen and improve the memory if consumed. The Greek scholars, it is said, wore amulets
of rosemary sprigs to enable them to memorise their lessons. It was used as a popular plant in
funeral wreaths, as a sign of remembrance, and thrown into graves because, ‘like happy
memories it does not wither.’ Rosemary was also woven into bridal wreaths, as a symbol of
loyalty, and carried in bouquets because of its perfume. The bridegrooms would also receive
gilded sprigs of Rosemary from the bridesmaids as a token of his love and loyalty to the bride.
It is also said that any young girl wishing to see a vision of her future husband should take a
mixture of rosemary and thyme on St Agnes Eve (20th January). Another legend claims that
where rosemary thrives, the mistress is master of the house, but elsewhere in Europe
Rosemary will only grow in the garden of those who are sinful, or so the legend goes! In i Spain
it is thought to have power against the evil eye. It is said that if you sleep with a sprig under
your pillow it will keep the evil spirits away. However, in some districts it is believed that it
flowers on Old Christmas Eve – 5th January.
By the thirteenth century the herbal properties were well known to the famous physicians of
Myddfai, those renowned herbalists from Carmarthenshire, who declared that ‘rosemary has all
the virtues of the stone called jet.’ Today drinks such as hippocras and posset frequently
contain rosemary, as did mead in days gone by. Ancient civilisations knew the value of herbs in
medicine and in the book of Ecclesiastics we read, ‘The Lord hath created medicines out of the
earth and he that is wise will not abhor them,’ The Physicans of Myddfai certainly did not
condemn them, but treated them with the respect they deserved.
However superstitious you may be about the rosemary, it seems that there is more to the
humble rosemary than meets the eye.

About Wendy Hughes

Wendy turned to writing, in 1989, when ill-health and poor vision forced her into early medical retirement. Since then she has published 26 nonfiction books, and over 2000 articles. Her work has appeared in magazines as diverse as The Lady, Funeral Service Journal, On the Road, 3rd Stone, Celtic Connections, Best of British, and Guiding magazine. She has a column in an America/Welsh newspaper for ex-pats on old traditions and customs in Wales. Her books include many on her native Wales, Anglesey Past and Present, The Story of Brecknock, Brecon, a pictorial History of the Town, Carmarthen, a History and Celebration and Tales of Old Glamorgan, and a book on Walton on Thames in the Images of England series, a company history and two books on the charity Hope Romania. She has also co-authored two story/activity books for children. Her latest books are: Haunted Worthing published in October 2010, a new colour edition of The Story of Pembrokeshire published in March 2011, and Shipwrecks of Sussex in June 2011 and Not a Guide to Worthing in 2014. She is working on a book entitled A-Z of Curious Sussex which will be published in 2016 Wendy also works with clients to bring their work up to publishable standard and is currently working on an autobiography with a lady that was married to a very famous 1940’s travel writer. Wendy has spent many years campaigning and writing on behalf of people affected by Stickler Syndrome, a progressive genetic connective tissue disorder from which she herself suffers. She founded the Stickler Syndrome Support Group and raises awareness of the condition amongst the medical profession, and produces the group’s literature, and has written the only book on the condition, Stickler The Elusive Syndrome, and has also contributed to a DVD on the condition, Stickler syndrome: Learning the Facts. She has also writing three novels, Sanctimonious Sin, a three generation saga set in Wales at the turn of the century, Power That Heal set in the Neolithic period entitled Powers that Heal, and a semi biographical book entitled New Beginnings which deals with two generations coping with blindness and a genetic condition. She has also had a handful of short stories published, and in her spare time is working on several at the moment. She also gives talks on a variety of subjects including Writing and Placing Articles, Writing Local History, Writing as Therapy, Writing your first novel, etc, and runs workshops on the craft of writing – both fiction and non-fiction. She is a member of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists, and a member of the Society of Authors.