My holidays are all about food. In truth, my life is about food.
Forget the gifts and give me the delicious fare and heavenly aromas that accompany this special time of year. The scents of the season arouse the senses — ginger, cinnamon, spruce and fir trees, cloves, mace, bayberry, frankincense and myrrh are just a few.
Perhaps the finest smell and flavor of the season is redolent rosemary. It is more than just perfect for your holiday cooking.
Rosemary has long been part of the holiday season. In fact, it is commonly known as the Christmas herb and was considered a holiday plant throughout history. Unfortunately, in the 1900s, poinsettias and Christmas trees became popular, overshadowing this traditional favorite. Rosemary has made a resurgence with its reincarnation as a holiday topiary.
It was the original holy plant, said to have become sacred after the Virgin Mary hung her blue cloak and baby Jesus’s swaddling clothes on its branches. The night that Jesus was born, the plant bloomed and fruited out of season. Mary’s cloak turned rosemary’s white flowers blue. Continuing the association with Jesus, rosemary is reputed to live only up to 33 years (the age at which Jesus died), and will not grow taller than his height.
There are many customs surrounding rosemary. During the Middle Ages, housewives spread it on the floor and walked upon it at Christmas to provide a festive scent. It was also burned to drive off evil spirits that inhabited the darkness, during December, the darkest month of the year. Keep it under your bed or on the doorstep for safety from wickedness.
Funerals were also an occasion to have rosemary on (and in) hand. This plant was brought to burials both to protect the holder from infection and also to toss into the grave and give to the grieved so that they will not forget the deceased. In Romeo and Juliet, the friar has to adjure Juliet’s mourners to “Dry up your tears, and stick your rosemary/ On this fair corse.” Perhaps more well-known are the haunting words of Hamlet’s grieving girlfriend, Ophelia: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.”
Rosemary’s use is not confined to sorrowful situations. Brides would weave rosemary into their wreaths or flower arrangements to remind wedding participants not to forget their vows. It is symbolic of friendship, fidelity, love and loyalty — a perfect plant for nuptials.
There are even more reasons to keep rosemary around all year long. In an old manuscript sent to Queen Philippa of England by her mother, she was advised that rosemary “mighteth the boones and causeth goode and gladeth and lighteth all men that use it.” Even better is its fountain of youth reputation. A 16th century prescription suggested, “Seethe much rosemary, and bathe therein, to make thee lusty, lively, youthful and youngly.”
Rosemary is native to the coast of the Mediterranean, giving rise to its scientific name, Rosmarinus officanus, which romantically translates to “dew of the sea.” It is also considered a symbolic plant of female strength, and a proverbial saying had it that “where Rosemary flourished, the woman ruled.”
American poet and journalist Myrtle Reed saw the strong and sweet connection of both plant and lady. She wrote, in Lavender and Old Lace, “Miss Ainslie gathered a bit of rosemary, crushing it between her white fingers. ‘See,’ she said, ‘some of us are like that — it takes a blow to find the sweetness in our souls.’ ”
Thus, while rosemary has a taste and fragrance that can’t be forgotten, and a lore that shouldn’t be, it also may assist you in remembering loved ones (and your own strengths), too. In the spirit of the season and the words of Shakespeare, here’s hoping that, like rosemary you keep your “seeming and savor all the winter long” — and “grace and remembrance be to you!”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.