Herbal medicine is historically tied to food and cooking traditions. Most people think of herbal medicines as capsules sold with a claim to cure a particular health problem. This is the unfortunate modern marketing approach to an old system of medicine. In the past herbs were a part of daily food. A wise mother or grandmother would prepare the foods based on tradition and also an understanding of what foods would be most appropriate to keep the family healthy. Some of this was based on what foods were available, but also there was a sense of what foods would make a person feel good at various times of the year.
When good food seems to provide good health, then food traditions develop. As a result there are many food traditions around the winter holiday season, and there are reasons why certain foods became popular and remain as holiday traditions to this day.
The winter holidays are a time of cold and darkness. The human body is adjusting to the lower amount of light and the cold makes it harder for many people to get out and exercise and socialize. The winter holidays provide a structure to bring people together and nourish each other through food and joy. The foods of course need to be special and are often rich in calories to provide the nourishment to fuel the body in cold conditions. Heavy rich foods are often hard to digest, resulting in a heavy bloated feeling. The way people have always dealt with heavy rich foods is to add spices. Spices help the body to digest food. The choice of types of spices depends on the time of year and the types of food that is being consumed.
The choice of winter holiday food tends to be heavy dense foods that not only provide calories for dealing with the cold but also foods that are available in the winter either through storage or that can be butchered as needed. As a result the holidays see a lot of cured, smoked or preserved meats and sausages. Large animals were hard to butcher in the winter so the fresh meat of choice is fowl or fish. Root vegetables and squash store well into the winter. Dairy and eggs are available year round. The shift to a diet heavier in these foods and away from summer greens, provided people the fuel that they needed to deal with winter.
To help warm the body as well as the spirit, these heavy foods were mixed with spices that warm the body. These would include cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. Meats would be prepared with onions and garlic. Holiday cookies, and holiday treats like egg nogg and ginger bread also utilize the warm spices of the season. Cured ham is topped with cloves, and cinnamon is added to the hot cider. These traditional foods somehow seem appropriate at this time of year, and in many ways they are because in the past this was how families came together and used food to keep everyone healthy. Good health of course is the best gift of all.