20 Christmas Spices & Herbs to Fill Your Home With Joy
The holidays are coming! And what better way to fill your home with Yuletide cheer than to decorate, cook and bake with the season’s traditional herbs and spices? I’ll bet some of your best Christmas memories are invoked with certain traditions, aromas and flavors. Was it the smell of gingerbread baking in the oven that you’ll always remember? Or maybe the woodsy scent of evergreen Christmas tree filling the family room? Here we explore the fun folklore behind traditional Yule herbs and Christmas spices, and remind our readers the many ways they can be used to set the mood this holiday season.
10 Traditional Yule Herbs
Yule is the pagan Christmas holiday and dates back thousands of years. In fact, most of our modern Christmas traditions originate in the Old Germanic and Norse celebration of Yuletide. Take note here – not all of our Yule herbs listed are edible or are safe for human consumption. Pay attention to which say edible or not edible.
1. Mistletoe (NOT Edible – For Decoration)
For centuries, mistletoe has been a traditional Yule herb. True, it’s not edible, but it’s been used as a magical herb by the Celts and Norse peoples for similar reasons. Did you know at one point the Church banned it completely? Mistletoe was sacred to the Druid priests as it could be found growing on their most treasured tree – the oak. The Celts believed whatever powers the tree had, so too would the mistletoe that grew on it. The Norse people associated mistletoe with the trickster god Loki. The belief that mistletoe brought good luck and banished evil likely gives way to the tradition of kissing underneath of it at Christmas-time.
2. Ivy (NOT Edible)
Ivy was once an inseparable part of Christmas celebrations in Medieval Times, likely originating centuries before in ancient Yule and Winter Solstice traditions. If Holly represents the divine masculine energy, Ivy is the feminine. Ivy and holly and other evergreens not only honored life in the Dead of Winter but also warded off evil spirits. The Christmas Ivy’s magic dates back to the ancient Celts – it was linked to the Celtic goddess Arianrhod and thought to bring fertility to women. Again, a plant that lives even in Winter. The Christmas ivy has fallen out of favor in modern holiday celebrations, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to bring it back?
“The Holly and the Ivy
When they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The Holly bears the crown.” ~ Old British Christmas Folk Song
3. Holly (NOT Edible)
Holly is a tree with spiky, glossy green leaves and red berries. A tree that lives through the harsh Winter weather and doesn’t lose its leaves or life. An evergreen that was particularly beloved by the ancient Romans and Celts. It was seen as a representation of the Divine Masculine, and when the Church rose to prominence, the holly berries became a symbol of Christ’s blood on the cross. And the leaves a reminder of life after death. Use holly in your Christmas and Yule decorations: wreaths, garlands, table centerpieces, etc.
4. Rosemary (Safe in Food / Edible)
Rosemary has been a favorite Yule herb and Christmas plant for centuries. Unfortunately, I don’t have solid evidence of its ancient pagan origins linking it to Yule or the Winter Solstice. But I do know it’s been a part of the Winter holidays for centuries, and once Christianity became the main religion in Europe, the rosemary plant took on a new legendary status. Mother Mary is said to have draped baby Jesus’ swaddling clothes over a rosemary bush. The white flowers turned blue in honor of the baby. Ever since, rosemary has been included in Christmas and Yule herbs.
Rosemary is safe to use in your foods, teas, decorations and other Yule preparations. It’s delicious stuffed into roasted chickens and turkeys. Flavors soups, stews, and pork dishes perfectly. Some people even keep a small “rosemary tree” in their homes for the beautiful aroma and as a bringer of prosperity. You can even diffuse rosemary essential oil in your home to evoke that Yuletide energy.
5. Juniper (Semi-Edible, See Below)
Juniper has been part of the Winter festivities in Europe for likely thousands of years. It is evergreen, like many of the beloved Yule herbs, and produces berries. Juniper berries can be used to flavor some broths, soups, and meat dishes. But the whole berries are removed before serving. In Medieval times, folks burned juniper branches in their homes to ward off bugs, as well as negative spirits around Christmastime. In parts of Switzerland, boys still parade through the streets carrying Juniper branches on New Years Eve. Use juniper berries to flavor your Christmas dishes, or burn juniper bundles to spiritually cleanse your home at Yuletide.
6. Spruce: The Yule Tree
A plentiful tree in Northern Europe, Spruce has been a popular choice for Christmas tree for centuries. But even more so in recent years. We could imagine our ancient Germanic ancestors decorating giant Spruce trees in centuries-past. And possibly clipping off branches and bringing them inside to keep the hope alive through the Winter holidays.
7. Rose of Jericho: Christmas Resurrection Herb
In modern times, a plant called the Rose of Jericho has become a popular Christmas and Yule herb. It’s actually not an herb, per se, but a type of spike moss that’s native to the deserts of Mexico and the Southwest United States. The amazing thing about this plant is that it goes into a period of hibernation when it’s source of water is gone. Once you place the balled-up dry plant in an inch of water, it springs back to life within 24 hours. Both pagans and Christians have come to recognize this plant as a symbol of resurrection and life after death. It brings hope for the sun’s return after a long Winter. And reminds some of the death and rebirth of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s common to bring these wondrous plants out as decorations during the Winter holidays.
Fir is the most beloved of Christmas trees in Northern Europe, in places like Norway and Sweden. It’s an evergreen, like most of the other Christmas plants and Yule herbs and smells amazing when brought indoors. Save a few branches or sprigs to burn at New Years, after you’re Christmas tree gives out.
There’s a reason birch is linked to Yule and the ancient celebrations of the solstice. It was one of the first trees that ancient man saw emerge from the icy tundras of the last ice age. It has powerful regenerative qualities and has long been associated with Mother Earth and goddess energy. In fact, one of the Elder futhark runes of Norse origin is Berkano, which essentially means “birch”. There’s a reason Krampus and other old Christmas figures carry birch twigs. Birch is cleansing, protective, and drives out negative spirits and energy. A good thing to have around in the “dead” of Winter.
10. Frankincense & Myrrh
I feel like these are obvious choices. Frankincense and myrrh are most definitely mentioned in the Bible and directly linked to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Of whose birthday would later be Christmas. These resins were used by the ancient Egyptians and other ancient peoples in purificatory rites and as offerings to the old gods. Frankincense is still used in Churches as a Christmas tradition. You can buy frankincense and myrrh in incense form and burn it to honor the old ways. Or wear frankincense perfume!
10 Traditional Christmas Spices
All of our favorite traditional Christmas spices listed here are SAFE for human consumption or for use in food preparation.
Cinnamon is one Christmas spice we just couldn’t do without. Think about it, are there any Christmas treats that don’t utilize the memorable flavor of cinnamon? Snickerdoodles, gingerbread, cinnamon rolls, spiced springerle, raisin and monkey breads, etc. The aroma alone brings me back to my childhood Christmases and makes me feel comfy and cozy inside. Would you believe cinnamon has been in use since at least 2800 BCE? And it became particularly popular in Medieval Times, probably lending to its popularity at Christmas today. Add cinnamon to your Christmas treats but also a dash to your hot cocoa and coffee. Or make a Christmas wreath or garland using orange slices and cinnamon sticks.
Clove is another spice that can’t be separated from the Christmas season. Along with ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon, it’s part of that holy triad of Christmas spices that immediately whisks us away to another world. In and of itself clove is a strong spice and should be used in moderation in most recipes. We know cloves have been in use since at least 200 BCE in China, when visitors chewed on cloves before visiting the Emperor. This ensured their breath smelled pleasant for the king. At Christmas, cloves are used in cookies, cakes, and even meat dishes.
Do you ever have Christmas without gingerbread? I don’t. We’ve been making gingerbread cookies in my family for decades and we won’t stop this year. Even if you don’t like gingerbread cookies, you might choose to erect a gingerbread house with the kids or simply for decoration. Gingerbread dates to Medieval times, as I believe monks first began making it. And as the years went by, it became a Christmas staple. Make sure you have ginger in your Christmas spice inventory.
Allspice is another of those Christmas spices that make the holidays special. It smells amazing and flavors our desserts like none other.
While not a “Christmas spice” necessarily, oranges have always been part of the Winter festivities in my home and many others. My grandmother always made sure to place an orange in our Christmas stockings, claiming it was family tradition. She also dried orange slices and made garlands, wreaths, and centerpieces with them. Oranges are part of Yuletide because they represent the sun and its rebirth the day after the longest night of the year (the Winter Solstice). Use orange slices in your Christmas baking, as decoration on cakes and breads. Or make traditional orange Christmas decorations. Add oranges to a Christmas simmer pot and fill your home with the aroma of the sun (add cinnamon and watch everyone gather in the kitchen).
One of my favorite scents is vanilla. And if we talk about its versatility, we’ll know why it’s used in large quantities over the holidays. The only problem is true vanilla is actually expensive as it’s an exotic plant. But you can get your hands on vanilla extract in the grocery store for a fair price. Many Christmas cookies and treats utilize vanilla extract including sugar cookies, vanilla biscotti, vanilla roll-cakes, Polish vanilla cookies, shall I go on? Add a few drops to your simmer pot to make the whole house smell like a Yule cookie.
7. Brown Sugar
You can’t have Christmas without something deliciously sweet. Brown sugar is used in many holiday treats including gingerbread, toffee, candies, cakes, and cookies of all kind. Some folks even use it when smoking or grilling pork roasts.
Nutmeg has a surprisingly dark history dating back to ancient times. In Medieval Times, the price of a pound of nutmeg was “seven fat oxen”, according to Linda Lum on Delishably. And it was believed to ward off the plague. Over the centuries, it’s become more accessible and cheaper to buy. You likely have ground nutmeg in your cupboard right now. Interestingly, nutmeg isn’t just used to flavor treats at Christmastime, but also potatoes au gratin, soups, eggnog, breads, and more.
9. Star Anise
Because the star is a common symbol of Christmas, star anise is a popular Christmas spice. But more than just the symbolism, star anise has an intensely pungent licorice scent and flavor. It’s added to mulled wine, biscotti, candies, cookies, tea and more.
Green is a Christmas color and mint is the perfect color of green. Plus its refreshing taste and smell remind us of newly fallen snow or of crisp Winter air. My grandmother always added mint to our hot cocoa and enjoyed using mint in a variety of Christmas recipes. Peppermint mocha cookies are a favorite in my house, courtesy of grandma. Peppermint tea on a cold day is revitalizing and relaxing at the same time.