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Christmas Spices

By Audrey Stallsmith

cinnamomum zeylanicum

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

Matthew 2:11

Since this is the time of year when even fast-food fanatics dig out aprons and grandma's recipes, it seems a good time to talk about spices. After all, two of the most exotic appear in the Christmas story itself.

Although we associate frankincense and myrrh with the Child of the New Testament, those resins are actually much more frequently mentioned in the Old. The Ishmeelites, who purchased Old Testament Joseph from his jealous brother, were "bearing spicery and balm and myrrh. . .down to Egypt." And, in Exodus 30, God gave Moses recipes for anointing oil and incense that made frankincense and myrrh prime ingredients.

For the oil, God instructed Moses to mix about 16 pounds of myrrh with the same amount of cassia and half as much each of cinnamon and calamus. For the incense, he was to beat together equal amounts of frankincense, stacte, onycha, and galbanum.

Frankincense (boswellia thurifera), myrrh (commpihora myrrha) and galbanum (ferula galbaniflua) are similar to each other in that they are all trees or shrubby bushes native to Asia and Africa. When slashed, they exude their perfumes as bits of resin called "tears."

Frankincense has always been the most esteemed of the three and the most used in worship. To the wise men it could have symbolized Christ's deity, while myrrh, often employed as an embalming spice, may have foretold his early death.

At Christ's crucifixion, the gospel of Mark reports, "they gave him to drink wine mingled with myrrh: but he received it not." And Nicodemus, who came to help prepare Christ's body for burial "brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pound weight."

Women of ancient times reveled in sweet odors. They painted their eyelids with black kohl, which was actually charred frankincense. The spice burned on braziers along with benzoin and aloeswood. Fragrant resins were sometimes infused into hand creams as well.

So when the woman in the Song of Solomon said, "My hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet-smelling myrrh," she may have been speaking literally. These days, myrrh is frequently added to toothpastes and mouthwashes, since its tannins help prevent canker sores and gum disease while its fragrance sweetens the breath.

For three of the other incense spices--cassia, cinnamon, and stacte--the inner bark is harvested. Cassia and cinnamon are closely related, the former being cinnamomum cassia and the latter cinnamomum zeylanicum. Stacte belongs to the same family (liquidambar) as the American sweet gum. Its inner bark is pressed to remove a semi-liquid balsam. Onycha is believed to be cistus ladaniferus, an ornamental whose flowers are as lovely as its scent.

The only one of the incense spices that would be hardy here in PA is acorus calamus or sweet flag. Also known as gladdon, myrtle grass, or cinnamon sedge, it flourishes in swampy conditions and won't flower unless actually growing in water. People once nibbled on bits of its rhizome to soothe their stomachs.

Most of the baking spices are native to Asia or to tropical islands. Some, such as ginger (zingiber officinalis) and turmeric (curcuma longa), are derived from the rhizomes of plants. Those two related roots might almost be considered too good to be true, since they treat a wide variety of ailments.

Both are blood-thinners and antifungals that also relieve indigestion and pain, lower blood pressure, protect the liver, and help prevent cancer and heart disease. Ginger is probably the best remedy around for nausea, vomiting, morning sickness, and motion sickness-one study proving it even more effective than Dramamine! In the good old days people consumed the spice, wrapped in bread, after a big meal to ward off digestion problems. (The ancient version of Tums, perhaps!) Eventually somebody got the bright idea of including the spice in the bread's ingredients, and gingerbread made its debut.

Ginger beer, the forerunner of ginger ale, was also very popular. In my family, we quaff ginger ale as a remedy for nausea. (This only works, of course, if the soda is naturally flavored.) I also pop a couple ginger capsules with any meal that includes baked beans or other hard-to-digest dishes. Ginger breaks fevers and dispels mucous too. As a hot compress, it relieves muscle stiffness and pain as well as congestion.

Turmeric is found in curry powders and prepared mustards. Mixed with a little oil and applied externally, it is the premier herbal treatment for all kinds of skin problems, including acne, dermatitis, and diaper rash.

Most of the other baking spices come from the seeds, fruits, or bark of trees. Almost all of them are antiseptic and antifungal, and many are rich in a compound called eugonol that aids digestion and relieves pain. Among those is pungent cassia, the "inferior" of the two cinnamons, which generally spices meats and curries. Sweeter zeylanicum is the cinnamon we commonly add to desserts and breads.

Both cinnamons will stop vomiting and relieve gas and diarrhea. John Heinerman suggests sprinkling a little cinnamon and cardamom on hot buttered raisin toast as a pleasant remedy for indigestion. Cardamom, a mild stimulant and an ingredient in curry powder, is frequently recommended to those who have celiac disease (an intolerance for gluten). Another curry component, allspice, does not combine several spices. Rather, it comes from the dried and ground green berries of the pimento tree (pimenta officinalis).

A small amount of clove (eugenia caryophyllata) oil, applied with a swab, is an old home remedy for toothache. Since clove also kills germs, it sometimes appears in mouthwashes and your dentist may use it as a disinfectant for root canals. You can also reportedly chew on a couple cloves to curb a craving for alcohol.

Two of the baking spices, nutmeg and mace, are found on the same tree, myristica fragans--mace being the aril that surrounds the seed and nutmeg the seed itself. Although harmless in small amounts, in large doses nutmeg can be a poisonous narcotic.

While I am on the subject of poisons, let me also warn you that the essential oils made from many spices are so concentrated that they can also be toxic if consumed straight. Most of those oils were meant to be used in very small amounts, highly diluted. So please follow directions carefully.

We are very fortunate in that most of the incense and baking spices once made expensive by long caravan treks across dangerous territory are now cheaply available in our local supermarkets or craft stores. We should be careful not to take them for granted, however. The wise men, who appeared mysteriously from the east to offer homage to Christ, knew those sweet scents to be treasures fit for a King!

Cinnamomum zeylanicum image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.