“SEASONED GREETINGS: Deck the blahs with boughs of holly” by Molly Frances (Arthur, 2006)

Originally published in Arthur No. 25 (Winter 2006)

By Molly Frances

The holiday commonly called Christmas brings with it general feelings of dread and depression, as well as the intrusion of traffic, crowds, family, chocolate-covered everythings, large rectangular boxes, turtlenecks, and relatives with weird hair giving even weirder gifts. Well friends, I’m here to tell you: It has nothing to do with that!

Whichever winter holiday you choose to celebrate, from the Winter Solstice on down to Kwanzaa, I think we can do it better. We can make new rituals and traditions to define what these holidays are really supposed to reflect: faith, love, and rebirth.

The recently published Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals of Yuletide by Christian Rätsch and Claudia Müller-Ebeling (Inner Traditions Press) is a fascinating resource to explore the origins and varieties of our holiday traditions. If you thought Christmas was a time to lay low the libido and close your heart for the season, this book begs you to reconsider. Resist the mood-killing family gatherings and neutering woolen sweaters and breathe in the seductive aroma of the ages. The very spices, plants, and incense that make us cringe when encountered in uncomfortable holiday environments have been used for hundreds of years to invoke fertility, love, and magic during the winter “feast of love.” Nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, anise, saffron, ginger and vanilla were used in ancient Roman kitchens in baking and beverages, and many of these spices were considered to be aphrodisiacs. The authors instruct that “in medieval times festive meals were sprinkled to the thickness of a finger with spice powder, most often pepper, nutmeg, and cloves.” So gather the freshest ingredients you can find and get to work on those gingerbread houses, cookies, and spiced ciders to rekindle ye olde ancient holiday magic.

The greatest burden of the holiday season is of course the madness surrounding the selection of gifts, but it needn’t be this way. Why not offer your friends a bowl of steamed kale greens garnished with olive oil, lemon juice and a festive toss of dried cranberries? Tell them you offer this bowl of nutrient-rich greens to open their heart chakras. They will be so overcome by your gesture of goodwill and caring that that marshmallow santa will be thrown to the ground in favor of real nourishment. Give your beloved a pomegranate, the symbol of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. This deeply romantic gift will sweep away all previous longing for that iPod or riding lawnmower they were expecting. Traditional and modest gifts of candles, plants, and incense are often the most potent and symbolically rich. Frankincense is described in the book as stimulating feelings of intense sensual joy and, due to its THC content, can create “pharmacological effects.”

When we decorate and give gifts of green plants and flowers we are maintaining an ancient connection to faith and the hopeful message that winter will pass into spring. This is a time to celebrate the cycles of life, the light that we know will follow the dark winter days. Pagan Christmas reminds us that the Christmas tradition contains many holdovers of pagan rituals that were adopted by Christianity due to their undying presence in the popular mind. The disconnected presence of the living room tree can bounce back to a joyous significance when you consider that “pines are a symbol of immortality and resurrection. The idea that lucky children could find treasure hidden under them may come from the tree’s long history as an object of pagan worship. Like fir and spruce, the perfume of the pine needles and pine resin was considered forest incense.” The beauty of nature can thrive even in the dead of winter—or the suburban horror of Uncle Frank’s den.

Let’s not allow the manufactured and cynical distractions of the winter season to bully the magic from our thoughts. Creativity and passion can inspire us to cultivate new ideas about sharing time and and gifts with the people we love most. The authors of Pagan Christmas point out that even normally bummed-out Nietzsche would perk up in anticipation of Christmas approaching. Instead of dredging your defeated soul to the mall, pay a visit to your local farmers market and browse the bounty of the fall harvest. Spread nature’s sweetest gifts of tangerines or bags of pecans. Plant a tree in someone’s name (http://www.americanforests.org/planttrees) to celebrate the proliferation of nature. Break out of your Jello mold and create a spicy new holiday dish. And If you find yourself alone this winter, as all of us do one time or another, why not adopt a cat or dog? They will keep you warm, and if you feed them they will love you forever. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

“Wise Walnut” by Molly Frances (Arthur, 2006)

Originally published in Arthur No. 24 (September 2006)

By Molly Frances

“Wise Walnut”

Fall is here. Embrace the wisdom of the squirrel and gather up your nuts. We need them more than they do.

One of the most ancient of foods, walnut fossils have been found dating from the Neolithic period over 8,000 years ago. Rumors of the walnut groves in the hanging gardens of Babylon have been circulating for some time, and King Solomon is said to have often strolled among his walnut trees “into the garden of nuts to see the fruits of the valley” (Song of Solomon 6:11).

In the Middle Ages, the “Persian” walnut became known as the “English” walnut as colonial-minded English sailors carted off loads of the nutty bounty and spread them about Europe, and eventually the “new world.”

Jupiter’s royal acorns, as the ancient Romans liked to call them, bear a suspicious resemblance to the human brain. That makes walnuts brain food in every sense of the word. They’re loaded with Omega 3 essential fatty acids, vitamin E, and minerals necessary for mental and heart health. It’s no coincidence that as our intake of omega 3s have decreased drastically, depression and heart disease have risen. Get this, slim jim: Your brain is 60% fat, and cell membranes will build themselves out of whatever fats are available. Omega 3s are the optimum choice, but most people fill up on omega 6s, found in polyunsaturated vegetable oils and animal products. An imbalance skewed towards Omega 6 fats are associated with inflamation, degenerative diseases, and mental disorders of all kinds, including increased violent activity. Sound like anyone you know?

Dr. Andrew Weil believes that the lack of Omega-3s in our diet is “the most serious nutritional deficiency we have in this country.” This deficiency is believed to be responsible for a wide range of diseases such as alzheimer’s, arthritis, ADD, diabetes, heart disease, PMS, and severe and manic depression. Omega 3 oils are found in oily fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, and sea greens such as hijiki and kombu. They are essential for retinal function and vision, immunity, promoting good cholesterol, and cancer prevention.

Got the blues? Skip the sundae and go right to the nuts. Omega 3s stabilize moods and increase energy levels. They are also beauty oils, keeping skin youthful and glowing and hair soft and shiny. Get healthy and happy by replacing some of those 6s with 3s. How about a handful of walnuts as a snack or on a salad? How about some ground-up flax seeds? Why not? Let’s all learn how to cook up some delicious sea greens like Hijiki; it’s fun to say and more fun to eat.

Make certain to store shelled walnuts in the refrigerator (up to six months) to keep the oils from going rancid, as they can become carcinogenic. Chopped and ground nuts go bad more quickly than whole raw nuts. You can tell a bad bag of nuts by the smell – if they have the aroma of oil paint throw them away.

Enjoy a bag of organic raw walnuts or whole fresh walnuts from your local farmer’s market. Nothing says “I have arrived” like a big bowl of walnuts on your table and a nutcracker placed just so. You’ll have a potential moneymaker on your hands as well, playing the shell game with your friends. The increased walnut-fueled brain power is sure to benefit your sleight of hand.

“A Better Way to Cool Off” by Molly Frances (Arthur, 2006)

Originally published in Arthur No. 23 (July 2006)

The New Herbalist
By Molly Frances

“A Better Way to Cool Off”

As spring fever’s eager blossoming inevitably withers into the summertime blues, we seek quick relief among the abundance of icy blended concoctions that our advanced civilization offers us. Unfortunately, though that iced coffee provides a momentary respite on a balmy day, it will also quickly return you to a state of dehydration and turn up the heat of your internal thermostat.
The ingredient for the most soothing and refreshing of summer drinks is probably already growing in your garden. For a deeply cooling drink, brew up a tasty pot of mint tea.

A handful of the fresh herb plucked from your garden and tossed into a carafe of hot water will have you living the good life in no time at all. Be sure to include the stems of the plant. This tea may be served cold as well, but resist the temptation of pulling out your blender. Frozen drinks and ice cream will hold heat in your body and freeze digestion. To really keep extra cool this summer, avoid your freezer and enjoy your summer beverages without ice.

For a truly sublime experience, serve your friends a pot of Atay bi Na’na’. Made from boiling water, fresh mint, a small amount of green tea and honey to taste, Morocco’s most popular drink is consumed all day long. Usually served in ornate silver pots and small decorated glasses, it is customary for three servings to be offered by the host, who pours the tea from a distance of up to several feet above to aerate the brew and show off his skills. Practice this before the guests arrive.

In addition to its cooling properties, Mint tea settles the stomach and digestive disorders, eases migraines, and helps draw out infection upon first signs of a sore throat. The powerful antiviral properties of peppermint are due to its main active ingredient, menthol oil, which opens and heals sinuses, bronchial tubes, and vocal chords. It is also said to create a mentally stimulating and relaxing vibration that reduces stress and anxiety.

So what have we done to deserve this magical leaf? As the legend goes, Hades, god of the underworld, was busted by his wife Persephone in mid-frolic with a hot young wood nymph named Mintha. Persephone, who had been somewhat rudely snatched down to the underworld by Hades in the first place, was in no mood to overlook this infidelity and stomped the little nymph underfoot, transforming her into the plant we know today as Mint. In a gesture of atonement to Mintha, Hades would endow the plant with its sweet and unmistakable aroma.

Persephone may have extinguished Mintha in the flesh, but her spirit has lived on in this most promiscuous of plants. There are few lands that the wildly propagating mint has not traveled to, and few cultures that she has not seduced. As 16th century herbalist John Gerard declared, “The smelle rejoiceth the heart of man.” From Egyptian temples to Roman baths, Mint has been used for all varieties of healing and pleasure. The Pharisees even paid their taxes with it, as revealed by this scolding from Jesus: “Woe to you, Pharisees! You tithe mint and rue and every edible herb but disregard justice and the love of God.” Ouch!

While perhaps more prized for its pleasure-inducing than medicinal properties, the mint julep has been the preferred drink of the Southern Aristocracy. Accept nothing less than fresh mint, water, sugar, and Kentucky bourbon. As one of its key proponents, S.B. Buckner, Jr. warned in 1937: “A mint julep…is a ceremony… a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician, nor a Yankee.” He instructs, “Go to a spring where cool, crystal-clear water bubbles from under a bank of dew-washed ferns. In a consecrated vessel, dip up a little water at the source. Follow the stream through its banks of green moss and wildflowers until it broadens and trickles through beds of mint growing in aromatic profusion and waving softly in the summer breezes. Gather the sweetest and tenderest shoots and gently carry them home.”

As Mintha clearly gets around, she has crossbred into hundreds of varieties including chocolate mint, basil mint, ginger mint, Persian mint, Corsican mint and Pineapple mint. All this intermingling frustrated one ninth-century monk, who declared, ” I would rather count the sparks in Vulcan’s furnace than count the varieties of mint.” The most popular forms are spearmint and peppermint, the former most often used in cooking but the latter more medicinally potent.

As Buckner proclaimed, “bury your nose in the mint, inhale a deep breath of its fragrance and sip the nectar of the gods.”