Victorian Manger Herbs, And Fun Foods for the Holidays

Yummy Egg Casserole
Cherry Coffee Cake
Cinnamon Bundt Cake

Each week I chat with Matt Swaim on the Sonrise Morning Show, Sacred Heart Radio. Today we talked about the legend of Victorian manger herbs and I also shared some of my family’s favorite recipes for the holidays.

On the starry night when Christ was born, according to the legends, Joseph gathered herbs and grasses t cradle his newborn son.  Among them were bedstraw and pennyroyal, horehound and thyme, rosemary and lavender: These are the herbs of the manger. 

When we look into decorating the season using different Advent or manger herbs, it makes us appreciate Advent and the true meaning of Christmas. So regardless of whether you call it a manger crib or a crèche, we like to tuck in some of these herbs that are descendants of the very plants which were being grown and used over two thousand years ago. 

When did the tradition start?
This tradition grew during Victorian times, when Victorian households used many of these herbs in their manger scenes.
Like bedstraw: Mary laid the baby on bedstraw, a plant of the fields and roadsides. Farmers fed it to cows to sweeten their milk, and stuffed mattresses with it, too.
Bedstraw was common in stables. And until this night, the stories say, it was no more than an everyday weed, with plain white flowers and no fragrance at all.
But when the Christ Child’s head touched the bedstraw,  the plant was forever changed. Its blossoms turned golden, and its narrow leaves were imbued with a sweet, fresh scent.

When children in Sicily visit a creche, they tuck sprigs of pennyroyal into the straw. Some say this plant, too, was transformed as it lay in the manger.
Pennyroyal, a strong scented mint, was a low-growing weed, hadn’t a single flower. But Joseph loved the aroma and picked it for the baby’s bed.
At the moment that Jesus was born, the little herb burst into bloom. Since then pennyroyal has carried bright purple blossoms — a royal hue, fit for a king.

One can imagine a young mother smiling, her baby asleep among flowers. But more sinister herbs also pillowed the Christ Child’s head, hinting at sorrows to come. Like horehound that Joseph gathered from Bethlehem’s fields.
Horehound is still growing abundantly in my herb garden. If you feel it the leaves are soft like felt.
So horehound actually represented both past and future, because  it symbolized Jesus’ Jewish roots — and foreshadowed a bitter betrayal.

The legend is that Mary cried when she saw  horehound there in the manger. She tried to pluck it from the straw hoping to change Jesus’ fate, but its stems were twined tightly among the other herbs and grasses.

The symbolism here is that some things just cannot be changed and  we all have challenges in our life. But as Mary picked through the straw and horehound, she found another herb: thyme, a symbol of courage and endurance. it grows wild upon the hills of the Holy Land.

Rosemary and lavender were among the manger herbs
Lavender symbolizes purity and virtue. 
Rosemary represents love and loyalty. Legend has it that rosemary will not grow taller than Jesus when he was on earth – 6 feet – or live longer than his 33 years. 
Even now, some folks make sure to have rosemary in the house on Christmas Eve, to bring luck.

What about those rosemary topiary trees you find at the grocery store now? How do you take care of them?
Rosemary is known as an “upside down” plant. It likes its roots fairly dry,  not soggy but rosemary does best in a bright area where the leaves can pick up moisture from the air. So make sure you have good air circulation so the plant doesn’t pick up mold on its leaves but give it a spritz of water every now and then. 

Jessie’s Gingerbread Cutouts

1 c solid shortening

1 c sugar

1 egg

1 c molasses (Jess uses unsulphured)

2 Tbsp distilled white vinegar

5 c flour

11/2 tsp soda

1/2 tsp salt

1 Tbsp ginger

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp cloves

Cream shortening with sugar.  Add egg, molasses and vinegar, beat well.  Shift dry ingredients into it.  Refrigerate 3 hours.  Cut out into shapes. Place on baking sheets. Bake at 375 for 5-6 minutes.

Buttercream Frosting

Beat together:

1 lb pwd sugar

1/2 c butter, softened

1 tsp vanilla

3 Tbsp milk



1/4 cup butter

3 cups pecan halves

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Hot pepper sauce, like Tabasco, to taste – start with a teaspoon and go from there

Seasoned salt to taste – start with 1/2 teaspoon and go from there


Preheat oven to 250. Melt butter and stir in garlic, hot pepper sauce and seasoned salt.Pour pecans into sprayed 9×13 pan in a single layer. Drizzle butter mixture over nuts and stir to coat well. 
Bake 1 hour or until nuts are crisp, stirring every 15 minutes. Let cool and store at room temperature in airtight container up to 1 month

Baked brunch egg casserole 

This is one of my students’ favorites. Simple enough for the kids to help.

Ingredients1 pound roll sausage, your choice3 cups favorite cheese, shredded, divided into 2 and 1 cup measures8 large eggs2 cups milk1/2 teaspoon seasoned or regular salt1/2 teaspoon pepper

InstructionsFry sausage just until cooked through. As it cooks, smoosh with potato masher to break up. Drain fat, and reserve sausage.Spray 9×13 pan. Sprinkle sausage in bottom.Sprinkle 2 cups cheese on top of sausage.Whisk eggs until fairly fluffy, then whisk in milk and combine.Season with salt and pepper.Pour egg mixture over cheese, being careful to pour evenly.Sprinkle remaining 1 cup cheese on top.Bake, uncovered, 45-50 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Casserole will be puffed all over. 
Serves 12-14.Change it up! 1 pound bacon, cooked and crumbled2 generous cups diced ham2 generous cups shredded, cooked chickenVegetarian version:Saute a small chopped onion in a bit of butter. Add several generous handfuls chopped fresh spinach. Cook just until spinach wilts. Cool and use instead of meat. 

ELAINE’S CHERRY CRUMB CAKEBakery quality crumb cake from your kitchen!
1 box yellow cake mix, 15.25 oz., divided (see instructions)1 package rapid rise or regular active dry yeast1 cup all purpose flour2 large eggs2/3 cup warm water1/3 cup butter, melted1 pound can cherry pie filling, or your choice 
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.Butter or spray a 9×9 cake pan.Whisk together 1-1/2 cups cake mix with yeast and flour.Add eggs and water. Blend until mixed, then beat for 2 minutes either on medium speed with mixer or vigorously by hand.
Combine rest of cake mix with melted butter until crumbly. Set aside. 
Spread batter in pan.Spoon pie filling evenly over batter. Sprinkle crumb topping evenly over fruit.Bake 35-40 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out fairly clean. Check after 35 minutes.The toothpick may have a bit of topping clinging to it.Let cool a bit before serving. 
Make 1 larger cakeUse a 9×13 pan and check after baking 30 minutes. Cake won’t raise as high and topping won’t be as thick, but you’ll get more servings! 
Gilding the lily: After cake cools, drizzle a little confectioner’s sugar glaze on top.
1 packet of yeast is approximately 2-1/4 teaspoons.Store yeast in freezer for longer life.Bring to room temperature before using.

1 box yellow cake mix, 15.25 oz.1 box vanilla instant pudding mix, 4 serving size1 teaspoon cinnamon2 tablespoons favorite neutral oil1-1/3 cups water2 large eggs
This cinnamon scented cake is a good keeper at room temperature, covered. 
CakeStreusel – combine together
1/2 cup all purpose flour1/2 cup brown sugar, packed, light or dark1 tablespoon cinnamon1/4 cup butter, melted

Preheat oven to 375 degrees,Grease and flour 10” tube or Bundt pan.On low speed in mixer or by hand, blend cake mix, pudding mix, water and eggs.Beat either 2 minutes on medium speed or vigorously by hand. Don’t overmix.Spread 3/4 of the batter evenly in prepared pan.Sprinkle 2/3 cup streusel mixture over batter in pan.Spread remaining batter over streusel.Top with reserved streusel. Swirl into batter with a knife. Bake 40-50 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Check after 40 minutes.After removing from oven, take a knife or offset spatula and run it around the edges of the pan, including center. Let cool 15-20 minutes.Remove from pan and serve.  
Gilding the lily:Drizzle cooled cake with confectioner’s sugar glaze.


Whisk together:1 cup confectioner’s sugar1/2 teaspoon vanilla1 tablespoon water or more as needed

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