‘Tis the season to be jolly!
Whether you find Christmas in carols and faith or celebrate the return of brighter days after the winter solstice, today is a time to enjoy the spirit of generosity and goodwill that fills the air.
Though plastic reindeer, shopping mall Santas, and the high volume of gift buying can overshadow the true meaning of Christmas, the joy of giving has ancient origins.
The ancient Romans may have been the first to associate gifts with their winter solstice celebration during their year-end festivities known as Saturnalia, celebrating agricultural bounty after the fall harvest. After a week of unrestrained revelry, families and friends had private gift swaps and indulged in food, dice games, and general merriment within their homes.
These Roman rituals laid the foundation for later Christmas gift-giving traditions in the Western world. But when Christianity embraced the ritual, it embraced the story of the three wise men (also known as Magi) and their significant offerings to baby Jesus.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, these esteemed visitors arrived bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh to honor the prophesied infant Messiah — gifts that weren’t just random luxuries.
Herbs and minerals, unlike fleeting possessions, offered enduring value. They held the power to heal, soothe, and nourish—qualities just as precious today as they were millennia ago.
At Gaia Herbs, we still believe in their amazing value. The wise men's gifts were only the beginning of a long history of associating nature’s bounty with the Christmas season. Even today, certain herbs and plants hold a special place in our festivities, adorning our homes and warming our spirits.
The Scents of the Christmas Season
You may wonder why frankincense and myrrh were two of the three most prized gifts for the prophesized Christ. Beyond their monetary worth, these aromatic resins held sacred purposes across the ancient world.
Frankincense, known also Boswellia, the hardened sap of Boswellia trees native to northern Africa and Asia, has a sweet, woody aroma when burned. Its smoke was associated with the breath of life and used for incense in spiritual ceremonies to represent prayers rising to heaven.
Traditionally, it was also used in Ayurvedic, Asian, and Middle Eastern medicine systems to support a wide range of health conditions. Scientists have identified several active compounds that may help support good health and additional research may confirm their benefits.
Used for aromatherapy, Frankincense’s warm, balsamic scent with a subtle hint of spice evokes feelings of peace and serenity, making it the perfect addition to any Christmas ritual.
Myrrh is a gum resin that is extracted from Commiphora myrrha tree that grows in the same regions as Frankincense. Its earthy, piney, and slightly bitter scent made it an indulgent fragrance for incense and perfume. It was approved as a food additive by the FDA in 1992 and is used to add a unique herbal flavor to some products like toothpaste and lozenges.
Myrrh's gum contains a range of phytochemicals and metabolites — diverse organic compounds with potential health properties — but more research is needed to confirm its effects.
Use Myrrh essential oil, alone or in combination with Frankincense, in aromatherapy to promote relaxation over the holidays.
Festive Foliage for the Holidays
More than a few of the plants we use to deck our halls over Christmas were first used centuries ago in rituals to celebrate the winter solstice or Christmas. Festive evergreens, bright berries, and fragrant herbs weren't just decorations but often symbolized nature's resilience, the promise of new beginnings, and sometimes even the warding off of evil spirits. Today, when we use plants for celebrations, it helps us maintain a connection to the natural world.
Mistletoe is noted in both Druid and Norse mythology as a scared plant. Because it could blossom even during the winter months, it was thought to have the power to restore fertility, which may be why it is associated today with love. The ancient Greeks and Romans both used it in traditional medicine practices for everything from epilepsy to menopausal symptoms, but modern science has yet to prove its health benefits.
By the 18th century, Mistletoe was commonly used in winter holiday decorations in England, with at least one source suggesting that servants began the tradition of kissing under it. Sometime later this Christmas ritual caught on with upper classes. It was thought that refusing a kiss could bring bad luck.
Mistletoe is classified as a "hemi-parasitic" plant, meaning it fulfills some of its nutritional needs by latching on to other plants like oak and pine trees. While mistletoe produces its own energy through photosynthesis, it anchors its roots into a tree host to get additional nutrients and water. In this way, mistletoe persists even in the lean months when most vegetation disappears and reminds us of the remarkable interdependence and resilience of nature. Mistletoe is mildly toxic to animals, so secure it in high places and never leave it out where your dogs or cats (or young children) can reach it.
The tradition of lining mantels and banisters with fragrant evergreen garlands and wreaths goes back to pre-Christian winter solstice celebrations across Europe. As winter set in and trees defoliated, conifers stayed vibrant green. So pagan cultures, such as the Romans and Celts, brought evergreen boughs indoors to symbolize persistence and the promise of rebirth at a time when little else could grow.
Evergreen boughs made their way into Christmas rituals and continue to infuse our homes with a fresh forest scent through the darkest days of the year. Pine, one of the most popular evergreens in the U.S. for Christmas, is often used in aromatherapy for its clarifying and stimulating properties.
The bright poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) that is synonymous with Christmas decorations in the United States originates from southern Mexico. It was thought to resemble the star of Bethlehem and was used by Franciscan monks in the 17th century to decorate Nativity Scenes. The red “blossoms” on the Poinsettia are actually leaves and the plant comes in white, pink, and light green varieties.
According to Mexican legend, one Christmas Eve, a poor village girl named Pepita needed an offering for her village’s nativity scene. With no money to buy a gift, she gathered a modest bouquet of roadside weeds. The angels took compassion and transformed Pepita's humble offering into a bounty of brilliant red and green leaves as a reward for her devotion. When word spread, the radiant flowers were hailed as “Flores de Noche Buena,” or “flowers of the holy night.”
In the early 1800s, an American botanist and first U.S. Minister to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, saw the colorful red and green plants while on a diplomatic mission to Mexico and brought several back home to grow in his greenhouse in South Carolina. He began giving friends plants as gifts. By the early 20th century, they had grown in popularity to the point that Albert Ecke, a farmer in Southern California, began cultivating them, with varied success.
When Albert’s son, Paul Ecke, took over the family’s floral business in 1919, he invested in more land, and through successful propagation and marketing built the largest poinsettia-growing operation in the world.
While poinsettias gained a reputation for being poisonous, this was based on a story of one child’s death over 100 years ago. Fortunately, research has proven the plant to be non-toxic. The name of the plant has become controversial because its namesake, Joel Poinsett, was a slaver owner and, as U.S. Secretary of War, oversaw the Trail of Tears, the forced displacement of over 60,000 Native Americans. The plant was also used for various purposes before he “discovered” it. Many prefer it to be called by its original Aztec name, cuetlaxochitl (kwet-la-sho-she).
Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas!
As you gather potent greens, fragrant resins, and vibrant blossoms, you're not just adding festive touches to your holiday celebrations. You're unconsciously reaching back through history, bringing forward the winter solstice rituals of ancestors who revered nature's resilience in the face of scarcity.
Plants are not mere decoration. At Gaia Herbs, we can’t celebrate Christmas without acknowledging our debt to plants: how they nourish, comfort and connect us to the rhythms of the earth. With every herbal supplement we craft, we honor the sanctity of plants — the original gifts that keep on giving.
We hope you’ve woven some of the magic of these Christmas-oriented botanicals into your holiday traditions and will continue to explore the many ways these and other herbs, roots, and minerals can serve you all year long.