Diarmuid Gavin: Frankincense & myrrh
The plant stories behind traditional Christmas herbs, spices and flowers
Throughout the country, little children make their way to school in the weeks running up to Christmas full of excitement to practise their Nativity plays.
A few years back, my own little one had bagged what she felt was a scene-stealing role as one of the kings, presenting frankincense.
For a month, she and her friends had dressed up in luxurious robes (in reality, old dressing gowns), acting out this visit to the newborn baby, in preparation for the day when all the parents would gather to appreciate their efforts.
It led to a good deal of discussion because Christmas when you're little is all about Jesus, Mary and presents! The gold, everybody understands - it's bright and shiny and has been a sign of wealth and currency, as well as a decorative metal, for thousands of years.
But frankincense? "What is it, Dad?" she asked. "What did they give the baby Jesus in the manger as a gift?"
Frankincense and myrrh, two presents that were deemed by kings 2,000 years ago to be worthy gifts for the son of God must mean they were very highly valued. We hear about this pair every year at this time, but most of us know so little about them.
They are not, in fact, precious minerals or jewels - they actually come from plants. Frankincense is derived from the milky-white, aromatic resin of the Boswellia tree (above left), found in East Africa and the Arabian peninsula. To harvest the frankincense, the trunk is slit and the sap seeps out, much like rubber was collected from plantations.
It has been used through the millennia for religious ceremonies and medicinal purposes - even today, it is being researched for its curative powers when it comes to asthma and arthritis. But when it was proffered as a gift to the newborn baby, it was used to symbolise his priestly role - when burnt as incense, the smoke was believed to send prayers heavenwards. Even thinking about it helps us set the scene for contemplation over the Christmas period.
Myrrh is also a resin, derived this time from the Commiphora tree, which is also found in the Arabian peninsula and the north-east of Africa. When these extracts were valued, it was the days before the synthetic production of chemicals and potions. Markets and trade routes would have been packed with many different types of wondrous plant extracts. Myrrh was an ingredient of anointing oil and significant as a gift, symbolising that Jesus was a healer. So in the Nativity, our three little actors offer up symbols of wealth, prayer and healing - good offerings for a new young life.
But back to those Eastern markets. Throughout the years, their evocative smells have arrived in our own homes through cooking. And these scents, which all derive from plants, will tomorrow, Christmas Day, waft from our kitchen around the house.
Cinnamon is the essential Christmas aroma - it comes from the bark of the Cinnamomum trees (pictured top centre), which are coppiced, much like we do with willow, so shoots spring up. These are hammered and then the inner bark from these young shoots is unfurled - this is what arrives in jars as cinnamon sticks.
Did you know that cloves are the dried flower buds of a tree - Syzygium aromaticum (pictured right)? The English name for them derives from the Latin word clavus, which means 'nail', and
when you examine them, that is what they look like. The clove was once one of the world's most sought-after commodities and was the main reason that the Dutch colonised Indonesia.
Most of us realise that ginger is a root - well, when you see it in its raw state, it does look like one: a gnarled rhizome. It comes from the plant Zingiber officinale and is consumed as a delicacy spice or medicine. In the subtropics, it makes for a really beautiful ornamental plant.
And where would we be without nutmeg? Used in powdered form as a dust for frothy, milky drinks in coffee bars throughout the land, it is native to several Indonesian islands known as the Spice Islands. Nutmeg is the seed of Myristica fragrans (right), a tree notable for producing more than one spice - the covering of the seed is harvested to produce mace.
But it's not only scent and taste we celebrate from the natural world at Christmas. The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves (centre) is sometimes thought of as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem, which led the Wise Men to Jesus. The red-coloured leaves symbolise the blood of Christ, while the white leaves represent his purity.
So, as we clasp our hands around warming mulled wine or sit down for festive dinner tomorrow, let's remember most of those seasonal tastes and smells come from someone's garden somewhere.