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Herbs in an Advent Wreath

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Herbs in an Advent Wreath
A long-standing holiday activity in our home is to make an Advent wreath for the table which reminds us of the blessings and special meaning this season brings.  I use herbs to make our wreath and enjoy the significance that many of them bring to this favorite tradition.  Some of the herbs I include in our wreath are boxwood, juniper, lavender, rosemary, sage, and thyme.  Most of these herbs were used during biblical times and are mentioned in the Bible, making their use in Advent wreaths especially charming.  The word “Advent” is derived from the Latin word “adventus,” which means “arrival.”  Christians celebrate the period leading up to the birth of Christ on Christmas Day during the month-long season of Advent.  There are many legends about herbs and the roles they played in the Christmas story.  The circle of the wreath, which has no beginning or end, symbolizes eternity.  Here is a list of some herbs frequently used in Advent wreaths and their unique meanings:

·         Gold Lady’s Bedstraw - Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) was one of the manger herbs.  Tradition states that before the birth of Jesus, the bedstraw flowers bloomed white.  After the birth in the manger, the abundant bedstraw in the barn was used by Joseph and Mary to create a soft, cozy bed for the baby Jesus. Ever after the herb’s blossoms changed to gold in honor of the royal birth.

·         White Horehound - Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is a bitter herb symbolic of good health and has always been used to combat illness.  It is also said to be useful in breaking spells.  It is one of the traditional manger herbs.

·         Lavender – The scent of lavender (Lavandula sp.) has always been associated with washing and cleanliness.  Tradition says that Mary used a lavender bush to drape the baby Jesus’ swaddling clothes on after they had been washed.  Ever since then, lavender has sported blue flowers, symbolic of heaven and the virgin birth.

·         Dark Green Rosemary – Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is found in many herb gardens.  Tradition says that the flowers of rosemary were once white.  In the flight to Egypt, the Holy Family stopped briefly to rest.  Mary threw her blue cloak on a rosemary bush, which ever after produced sky blue flowers.  Rosemary is also the herb of remembrance.  Another legend says that rosemary will only grow to six feet tall, the traditional height of Jesus.  After thirty-three years (the age of Jesus at his crucifixion) it will grow wider but not taller.

·         Flat Leaves of Costmary – Costmary (Tanacetum balsamita) or Alecost was used in making ale, the chief ingredient of English wassail (wass – ale) served during Christmas celebrations.  It is also known as the Bible leaf plant.  Dried leaves were used as Bible bookmarks and its reviving scent would keep parishioners alert during long religious ceremonies.  Symbolically it means fidelity or sweetness.

·         Green Boughs of Boxwood - Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) is symbolic of long life, immortality and enduring love.  It produces very hard, fine grained wood and this shrub has been trimmed into a traditional Christmas tree shape in the landscape for centuries.

·         Silver Sprigs of Sage – Sage (Salvia officinalis) mitigates sorrow.  Symbolically it means “I will suffer for all of you.”  It is included as a manger herb that foreshadows the death of Jesus.

·         Sweet Garden Thyme – Legend says Joseph cut branches of thyme (Thymus vulgaris) to make a bed for Mary and the baby.  Thyme is considered to be antiseptic making it a fitting addition to the manger.  Thyme symbolizes happiness and courage.

·         Juniper – Juniper (Juniperus communis) is the evergreen of sanctuary.  Folk wisdom says the branches are so prickly that only a hunted creature will dare penetrate them to save their life.  The strong scent is believed to confuse the pursuer.  Legend says that as the holy family fled to Egypt, a group of juniper trees opened their branches to hide the family from the pursuing soldiers.  In the early Christian church boughs of juniper and rosemary were burned to purify the air.  This sweet scent (or incense) has been used since then to symbolize the prayers of the faithful and the protection of God.

·         Rue the Herb-of-Grace – In Christian and Jewish tradition rue (Ruta graveolens) is known as the “herb-of-grace.”  It symbolizes sorrow, clear vision, and true repentance.  Branches of rue were used to sprinkle holy water to illustrate God’s grace in salvation.  Tradition says rue protects against the Devil and can be used as an antidote against poison.

·         The Pungent Scent of Pennyroyal - Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) is one of the traditional manger herbs.  It has always been used to repel fleas and insects.  Its symbolic meaning is “escape, flee,” which is exactly what Joseph and Mary did after the Three Wise Men visited the baby Jesus and warned them of King Herod’s wicked intent.

To make a simple Advent wreath, use an Oasis wreath base (available at craft stores), greens and fresh or dried herb bundles.  Add candle holders with tapered candles if desired. Soak the wreath form in water, and then first arrange the greens, followed by the herbs and flowers until it’s full.  Finish by adding the candle holders and candles or you can purchase a wreath base with candle holders built in.  Water the Oasis every few days to keep the greens from drying out.

The real beauty of an herbal Advent wreath lies in the association the plants have with the inspiring stories of the Bible.  Enjoy this special season!

Jan Gowen
Kemper Center for Home Gardening

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