An Herbal Infused Christmas Tale
Tradition says that in 1531 the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to an Indian named Cuauhtlatoatzin, or Juan Diego, on the hill of Tepayac, near Mexico City. Mexico was in crisis, her territory only recently conquered by the Spaniards, her population diseased, her pride crushed. “Juanito,” said Mary, “Let not your heart be troubled. Am I not here, who is your Mother?”
Tradition also says that where the Virgin Mary appeared to Cuauhtlatoatzin, roses of Castile grew and bloomed overnight, even though it was the middle of winter. Mary is the mother of botanical miracles. In Europe, the swaths of marigolds that sprang up in green fields in the spring were said to mark the footsteps of the Virgin Mother. On my farm, when the rosemary patch bursts out with tiny, sky blue blossoms, tradition says we can thank the Virgin Mary for that too.
The Bible says in Genesis that God created the heavens “for signs.” The sun and moon measure out the days, months and years so that we know where we stand in the present. The billions of stars scattered across the night sky serve us like a diamond-studded Rorschach test to open up inner vision and give access to the future.
With all the sky to serve as a billboard, it’s no surprise the early Christians said the Lord chose a blazing star to announce the birth of a son. The Christmas story tells of three wise men in the East who read this news in the heavens, and I imagine royal Persian astrologers sighting on a newly bright star from observatories atop their ziggurats. Three astrologers didn’t confuse the message with the messenger and deem the star itself to be a King like Cepheus or a Queen like Cassiopeia. Instead, they took the Christmas star as a road sign, and followed it to the court of King Herod in Jerusalem.
“You say the stars announce the birth of the Prince of Peace,” said Herod. His eyes narrowed as he addressed the men of the East. “When you find the infant, report back to me, so that I can go and worship him too.”
The three astrologers were wise because they could read the faces of men as well as the stars of the sky. “Herod means to kill the child,” they said to each other. The three wise men reached the end of their journey, and found an animal shed where a carpenter’s young bride cradled her infant in her arms. The astrologers gave the baby Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They gave his mother some frank advice: “Get out of Bethlehem while you can. ”
They astrologers must’ve also given Mary the star-spangled burkha she wears in icons, where she’s portrayed, standing on a crescent moon, back-lit by sunbeams, in her role as Mother Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Queen of Heaven and Mexico. A carpenter’s wife couldn’t have afforded such a splendorous and significant garment. But what an appropriate gift for wealthy astrologers to give a poor young Queen Of Heaven! Mary fled with her young family into Egypt. Along the way, perhaps still in the hills of Judea, or in the stony wastes of Sinai, Mary spread her burkha over a rosemary bush and took shelter underneath. While the sun was still up, the blue cloak could cast cooling shade, and after dark, the burkha could serve as a makeshift tent to protect her baby from the dew and chill of a desert night.
Rosemary, like Mary, is native to the Mediterranean. The pointed, waxy, and resinous leaves of the rosemary plant are drought adaptations that reduce water loss through transpiration. The Holy Lands are revered by three religions, but that doesn’t mean the climate is any kind of paradise. Mary had practical reasons to spread her starry, blue cloak over the rosemary bush before she slept beneath it with her baby. Rosemary is a mint family member, and eighteen different essential oils are produced in its leaves, giving the herb its complex pine, camphor, and citrus aroma. Most people enjoy these scents, and find them healing— but flies, lice, and fleas do not. Country girls all around the Mediterranean have known for ages how to take advantage of rosemary’s bug repellent properties by spreading their wet laundry out to dry on rosemary bushes, so that the scent infuses the fabric. Mary, who’d already talked with angels and astrologers, would also have had mystical reasons for draping her cloak over rosemary brush. Rosemary was said to ward off the “evil eye.”
In the morning Mary gathered up her things from the ground. She wrapped herself in her blue shawl once more, and took up her journey east towards exile in Egypt. The Bible says the sun and moon and stars were placed in the heavens for signs, but tradition tells us that plants have things to say too. The rosemary plant that had given shelter to Mary and her child, which before that night had flowered white for purity, now bloomed blue for fidelity. Today, in Spanish, rosemary is called romero, which means “religious pilgrim.” And to this day, rosemary’s flowers reflect the blue of heaven where Mary will always walk.
Julia’s Rosemary Recipe page, including rosemary lemonade, cheese fingers, and other uses of the herb.