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Updated: Jul 13, 2021

According to the Herbal Academy, “the winter solstice is an astronomical event caused by the tilt of the earth on its axis and its orbit around the sun. The result in the Northern Hemisphere is the longest night and the shortest day. In ancient times, the winter solstice marked the midpoint of winter, but in modern times, it represents the first day of winter.”

“The winter solstice has been the inspiration of many ceremonies since man first realized the significance of the event. The Ancients celebrated the winter solstice as the time for the Holly King, the king of darkness, to do battle with the Oak King, the king of lightness. This happens twice every year. At the summer solstice, the longest day and the shortest night, the days begin to shorten and the Holly King defeats the Oak King and reigns supreme in the dark times. In December, following the winter solstice, the days begin to lengthen and the Oak King conquers the Holly King and reigns during the light times.”

“To honor the Oak King, our ancestors would include acorn muffins, cakes, or breads in the evening feasts. Holly was the sacred plant of the Romans and their god Saturn, and they made small wreaths of holly and exchanged them as tokens of friendship. Evergreen boughs and trees, symbolizing the rebirth of nature and vegetation, were brought into the home because they remained green during the cold winter months. Pine needles were dried, and then crushed and added to teas, honeys, and breads for the solstice celebrations. Many traditions included a bonfire as an offering of light and fire, and an appeal to the sun to warm the earth once again. The Yule log, traditionally a log made preferably of oak for the Oak King, was decorated with evergreen boughs, berries, or seeds. During the evening, the Yule log was burned. Believing the ashes were mystical, people spread them on fields, in the hopes of encouraging magical fertilization in the spring. A small piece of the log was always saved and used to start the fire the following year.”

“Many people believe that our current December holidays were based on ancient solstice celebrations. Since then, solstice symbols have been incorporated into our current day holidays:

Mistletoe: Kissing under the mistletoe is based on an old Norse legend. Frigga, the Nordic goddess of love and beauty had a son, Balder, whom she loved dearly. He was a wonderful young god and one the best loved among the other gods. One day, Balder dreamed of dying. His mother was so alarmed, she went to all the birds of the sky and to the plants and animals of the earth and easily extracted from each a promise that they would never harm Balder. Loki the Trickster was jealous of Balder’s popularity. He pondered on the promises obtained by Frigga and found the loophole of the mistletoe. Since it did not set roots in the ground and was not of the sky, he gathered some of the parasitic mistletoe, and made a dart of its wood. At the next gathering, the dart of the mistletoe wood from whom a promise had not been given, found its place, and Balder was killed. Frigga cried so hard it is said she turned the red berries of the mistletoe to white. Finally, the gods took pity on her and restored Balder to life. The elated Frigga decreed to all that whomever walked beneath the mistletoe should not fight but put down their arms and walk away, and a kiss should be given to those who walk under it. Mistletoe etiquette is that for each kiss, a berry was picked. When the berries were gone, so were the kisses. If a maiden refused a kiss, she would remain unmarried for the following year."

Gingerbread: Ginger was another precious herb unknown to Europeans until it was brought back by the returning crusaders in the early 1100’s. It was an instant hit in Europe! It became a solstice or holiday favorite and was used in teas, gingerbread, and as a flavoring for their favorite meals. On this side of the ocean, some Native American nations felt the longest night should be used for dreaming, and would sip on infusions made of sleep-inducing plants. Upon awakening, they found the days getting longer, and stories were exchanged about their dreams and what they could mean to their futures.”

Feasts: common at solstice bonfires, foods included pork, reminiscent of wild boar hunts that occurred in northern Europe, or other meats. At this time of year, many farmers culled their herds to avoid having to feed them over winter, and their wives harvested and dried all the herbs they could. Fruit Soup was another winter tradition for some groups. Here is a basic recipe:

Fruit Soup: Ingredients: Fill a kettle about ½ full with water, and add 2 cups any dried fruit, including prunes, dried apricots, raisins, dried berries, pears, peaches, and craisins. Add 2 cups of fresh apple slices, a finely sliced orange, a finely sliced lemon, 2 – 3 cinnamon sticks, and 12 cloves.

Directions: Put all ingredients in the pot and simmer for 45 – 60 minutes. If it is too soupy, add ¼ cup of tapioca. Serve warm or cold.”

“In some Celtic cultures, shortbread was served made in round forms representing the sun. The easiest and best recipe originates in Sweden:

Solstice Shortbread Cookies: Ingredients: 1-pound butter, 1 cup sugar, 4 cups flour, and 1 teaspoon almond or vanilla extract.

Directions: Cream butter, sugar and extract together. Mix in flour. Use a cookie press or roll into balls and flatten. Bake at 350 for about 10 minutes or until a light golden color.”

WHY A WINTER HERBAL APOTHECARY? Our work as herbalists involves tuning in to the seasons, and for those of us who garden or wildcraft, this includes paying attention to the growing cycles, and when to harvest plants. Another core part of our seasonal preparations involves thinking ahead so we can plan for the winter. It’s essential to have the winter home apothecary stocked with herbs that can provide support when it’s needed most. When illness sweeps through a household in the dead of winter, it’s ideal to have herbal preparations already made and ready to use. Stock the winter home apothecary with essential herbal allies for colder months. Remember to always research each herb thoroughly for any personal safety concerns or contraindications before using them.

IMMUNE STIMULATING SYRUPS: Always ensure that at least one immune-stimulating herbal syrup is on hand before cold and flu season hits. Although herbal syrups are relatively fast to make in a pinch, it makes life so much easier to have them on hand when a sore throat hits or when immune support is needed. Stock the winter home apothecary with a classic immune-stimulating elderberry syrup, and add an antioxidant syrup such as Astragalus or Rose Hips. Families or individuals who are exposed to colds and the flu regularly may choose to use elderberry syrup daily throughout cold and flu season, use it only when exposure is suspected, or when signs of colds or flu is experienced.

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus): an Adaptogenic herb that helps protect the body against diseases such as cancer and diabetes. It contains antioxidants, which protect cells against damage. Astragalus is used to protect and support the immune system, preventing colds and upper respiratory infections, lowering blood pressure, treating diabetes, and protecting the liver. Astragalus has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties, and it stimulates the immune system, helping to prevent colds and flu. Astragalus is also a mild diuretic that helps rid the body of excess fluid.

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra): The berry has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiviral, and immune stimulant actions. The flower has alterative, antispasmodic, diaphoretic, diuretic, and nervine actions. Elderberry is commonly used to address colds and flu with a specific indication for inflammation of the upper respiratory tract, including hay fever, sinusitis, and tonsillitis. Elderberry is an ideal herb to use at the onset of a cold or the flu or after a virus has already taken root. Elderflower helps clear signs of heat in the respiratory system and promotes sweating. Heat signs include coughing, wheezing, nasal discharge, sinus congestion, sore throat, chills, and fever. It helps reduce excessive amounts of mucus and restore the mucosa to moderate levels. This is one of the reasons elderflowers are used for both acute and chronic forms of bronchitis.

Rosehips (Rosa rugosa): Rosehips are the fruits found on the Sweet Hips Rose. They are the most bioidentical and bioavailable form of vitamin C that can be found. They are also high in vitamin A, Calcium, & Zinc which can help prevent many chronic diseases, boost immunity, and help ease the pain of menstrual cramps. Rosehip tea has a tart, fruity flavor and is packed full of nutrients that help ward off colds and flu.

Rose Hip Jelly: Do not use aluminum or cast iron to cook the rosehips; use stainless steel or non-reactive cookware. Ingredients: 2 quarts rose hips, 6 cups water, 1/2 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice, 1 package Sure Jell pectin, 1/4 teaspoon butter, and 3 1/2 cups sugar. Special equipment: 6 8-ounce canning jars and fresh lids, and cheesecloth over a fine mesh sieve.

Directions: Rinse the rose hips thoroughly. Cut off the scraggly ends and discard. Place rose hips in a large pot. Add 6 cups of water. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to simmer. Cover and cook for 1 hour, or until rose hips are soft and mashable. Use a potato masher to mash up the rose hips into a rough purée. Set up the cheesecloth over a bowl or large pot. Transfer the rose hip mixture into the cheesecloth. Let strain into the bowl for at least an hour. Squeeze the cheesecloth to get more remaining juice out. Sterilize the jars by either running them through the dish washer right before canning. To sterilize the lids, bring a kettle of a couple cups of water to a boil. Place lids in a shallow bowl and pour the boiling water over them. You will need 3 cups of juice for this recipe, so if you have less than 3 cups, add more water to the mixture. Place 3 cups of the rose hip juice in a large, wide pot. Add the lemon juice and pectin. Bring to a boil, dissolving all of the pectin. Add the sugar. Once the sugar has dissolved, add the butter. Bring to a hard boil. The mixture will bubble up considerably. Boil for exactly one minute. Then remove from heat and pour off into prepared canning jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace from the rim. If any jelly falls on the rim as your pour it into the jars, wipe the rim with a damp paper towel. Place sterilized lids on jars and rings to secure. To ensure a good seal, and to guard against mold, process the jars in a water bath for 10 minutes. To process, place the jars on a rack in a large, tall stock pot. Cover with an inch of water and bring to a rolling boil for 10 minutes. Then turn off the heat, remove the jars from the water, and let cool. As the jars cool you should hear a popping sound as the lids seal. The lids should seal; if not, store in the refrigerator.

SYRUPS FOR DRY COUGH: Dry coughs are those where no mucus is present and the throat feels raw and dry. For a dry cough-supporting herbal syrup, moistening, demulcent, and anti-inflammatory herbs are preferred, along with antispasmodics. Herbs with these actions include Licorice Root, Marshmallow Root, Plantain leaf, and Thyme leaf.

Licorice Root (Glycyrrhiza glabra): may slow the progression of chronic bronchitis associated in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Studies show that the glycyrrhizin, Asiatic, and oleanolic acids found in licorice root have an antioxidant effect that is protective of the cells of the bronchi in the lungs. This suggests that licorice root may help slow, rather than stop or reverse, the progression of COPD when used with standard medical treatments.

Marshmallow Root: (Althaea officinalis): The medicinal properties of marshmallow root come from the mucilage, sap-like substance, that the plant produces. Marshmallow root tea relieves coughs, improves dry mouth, protects against ulcers, soothes skin irritations, heals wounds, and protects the throat from gastric reflux.

Plantain Leaf: (Plantago lanceolata): is a demulcent herb that contains complex polysaccharides that have a soothing effect on a variety of conditions. Plantain leaf has been documented to help people with chronic bronchitis. Other demulcents traditionally used for people with bronchitis include mullein, marshmallow, and slippery elm. Because demulcents can provoke production of more mucus in the lungs, they tend to be used more often in people with dry coughs.

Thyme Leaf: (Thymus vulgaris): With its antifungal, antispasmodic, and expectorant effects, thyme leaf fights agents that cause bronchitis, helps to subdue coughs, soothes a sore throat, and relaxes bronchial muscles. Thyme leaf relieves cough by relaxing muscles involved in coughing, thins mucus, making it easier to expel, decreases mucus associated with allergies and upper and lower airway infections, and reduces inflammation in the airways.

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