Rosemary – The Christmas Herb
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.’
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.