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Four Seasons
Pomanders: Golden Apples of the Sun
The pomander, a clove-studded fruit, is a traditional Christmas ornament and New Year’s gift. The word pomander comes from French pomme (which means apple, also the root of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits, and pommel, the decorative hilt of a word or dagger) and ambre. Ambre supposedly derives from ambergris, an early perfume ingredient, but I’m inclined to trace it back to another one of its meanings: golden in color.

Queen Elizabeth I always wore a pomander. In her time, pomanders were worn on chains, hung around the neck or from the waist, and contained aromatic herbal mixtures believed to ward off disease. Some were made of gold, silver, ivory and china encrusted with jewels and powdered with gold. The case was designed to resemble an apple or orange, suggesting their origin, hollowed oranges and apples filled with spices like the one carried by Cardinal Wolsey.

By the 17th and 18th century the decorated orange stuck with cloves was often mentioned as a Christmas or New Year’s custom. In his Christmas masque, Ben Jonson wrote, “He has an Orange and rosemary, but not a clove to stick in it.” A later description of New Year’s in England mentions children carrying pippins and oranges stuck with cloves in order to crave a blessing for their godfathers and godmothers.

Trefor Owen describes the Welsh New Year’s custom in which children go round from door to door in groups, carrying “their congratulations and good wishes for the heath and prosperity during the ensuing year, which are symbolized by each bearing in his hand an apple stuck full of corn, variously colored and decorated with a sprig of some evergreen, three short skewers serve as supports to the apple when not held in the hand, and a fourth serves to hold it by without destroying the many coloured honours.” This strange looking object is called the Calennig, a name which is also used to describe the custom of asking for New Year's gifts. A later description says the apple is studded with oats and raisins, powdered with wheat flour, gilded, and topped with sprigs of box and rosemary with half-cracked hazel nuts attached to the ends of the leaves. In some parts of Wales, an orange is used instead of an apple.

Asterius, Bishop of Amasea in Cappadocia, condemned a similar New Year's custom which occurred in his time, the fifth century. Groups of men went from door to door. “Amid shouts and applause they wished prosperity on the inhabitants of the house and demanded money from them. The begging went on until late in the evening; children also took part in it, distributing apples for double the sum they were worth.” What Asterius seems to have missed in his scorn about pagan superstitions, is that the apple was valuable precisely because it was invested with meaning and magic, probably as a token of prosperity.

Tokens of Prosperity
Oranges and tangerines have long been New Year’s gifts; I remembers always finding one in the toe of my Christmas stocking and thinking my mother put it there to take up space, but now I know she was just following an ancient custom. Italians eat lentils, raisins and oranges on New Year’s, because they symbolize riches, good luck and the promise of love. Oranges are also given as wishes of prosperity on Chinese New Year’s. I wonder if they are connected somehow with the three golden balls which are the emblems of St Nicholas. The legend tells that he rolled them into the house of three sisters who were planning to become prostitutes because they didn’t have enough money for dowries. In this story, the golden balls represent wealth; later they became the emblem of pawnbrokers.

In earlier times, Romans gave their friends a glass jar full of dates and dried figs in honey so the coming year would be sweet and full of good fortune. Neapolitans still wrap dried figs in laurel leaves and exchange them to insure abundance all year. Italian New Year's desserts have been made with honey since Roman times. Like the Jewish custom of eating honey on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, this invokes sweetness for the coming year.

The ancient Romans also exchanged bay and palm branches hung with sweets, dates, figs and gilded fruits. The items hung on the branch indicated wishes that the new year would be sweet, fertile and prosperous. In a similar way, the Japanese buy little ships from street vendors which contain treasures for the new year (a hat of invisibility, a lucky raincoat, the secret key, the inexhaustible purse, the precious jewel, the clove, the weight and a flat object which represents a coin). With the ship, you can sail into the future. The ancient Romans also exchanged coins on New Year's Day; on one side was a picture of Janus, the two-faced god of the New Year, on the other a ship.

If you are looking for new and inexpensive gift ideas for the end of the year you might use these ideas as a starting point. One Yule, the Saint Nicholas who appeared at the Santa Lucia party presented by Helen Farias and James Carrell handed out gilded walnuts which could be hung from the tree to make wishes come true. In their book, Family Food and Festivals, Diana Carey and Judy Large suggest placing small items (a charm, a shell or a few little sweets) inside walnut shells, then gluing them back together and gilding them. They can be presented in a bowl of moss on the Christmas table, hung from the tree or put on a ring of greenery so each child in the family can open one during each of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

The goddess, Nemesis, the sister of the Hesperides, is depicted wearing a crown of silver staghorns and carrying an apple-bough in one hand and a wheel in the other, with a scourge tucked into her belt. Graves believes that her wheel represents the solar year as suggested by the name of her Latin counterpart, Fortuna (from vortunna, she who turns the year about). Her scourge was used for ritual floggings, to fructify the trees and crops.

Graves says the Triple Goddess gave the apples to the king at the end of his reign as his passport to Paradise. He interprets the story of Paris (who has to present a golden apple to the fairest of three goddesses) as a misunderstanding of the icon showing the Moon goddess in her triple aspect presenting the apple of immortality to the sacred king.

The garden of the Hesperides is placed in the Far West because the sunset is a symbol of the sacred king's death. In a lyrical passage, Graves describes the sunset:

Then the sky is green, yellow and red as if it were an apple-tree in full bearing; and the Sun, cut by the horizon like a crimson half-apple, meets his death dramatically in the western waves. When the Sun has gone, Hesperus appears. This star was sacred to the Love-goddess Aphrodite, and the apple was the gift by which her priestess decoyed the king, the Sun's representative, to his death with love-songs; if an apple is cut in two transversely, her five-pointed star appears in the centre of each half.


The comparison of the sun with an apple shows up in Baltic myths also. Patricia Monaghan mentions several in O Mother Sun. Saule is a red apple setting in the west. Or a silve apple falling from a tree. She sleeps in an apple tree. During the night, the spirits of dead Balts journey to her on horses or birds or smoke. When Saule discovers her husband, Meness, the moon god, has violated her daughter, the morning star, she sits in her apple garden, weeping, “The golden apple has fallen from the apple tree.” Her tears are amber which the Greeks believed came from the Garden of the Hesperides.

Land of the Apples
The association of the West with death and immortality is also found in Celtic myth, where the Otherworld, sometimes called Avalon (the island of apple trees) lies over the Western Sea. Graves suggests that both the Elysian Fields of Greek legend and Avernus, the abode of the dead to the Romans, derive from words that mean apple.

In seasonal folklore, the apple surfaces as an important symbol at Halloween and continues through the Midwinter. This is appropriate since Halloween opens the season of Death, which closes at Midwinter (or New Year's) with the birth of the sun (new year). At Halloween, the apple is associated with divinations, like bobbing for apples, and with wassailing, a custom which persists through the winter holidays.

W.B. Crow describes some of the apple rituals associated with the Eve of Christmas or Twelfth Night: visits to the orchard, perambulations of the trees, recitations referring to fertility, beating the trees with sticks or shooting at them, making loud noises, wassailing (drinking health to the trees in cyder), dipping branches in cyder, offering toast, cheese and roasted apples, pouring cyder on the roots.

Carlo Ginzburg describes many European customs based on the idea that the spirits of the dead roam the world at this time of year. Ginzburg suggests that many of the images of the nocturnal gatherings of witches (which became distorted and perverted during the witchcraft trials) derived from shamanic journeys undertaken by followers of a goddess, sometimes known as Herodiade or Diana, but also as Habondia and Richessa and the Good Mistress, who was both a giver of abundance and the Mistress of the Dead.

Caitlin and John Matthews describe the nature of apples in Celtic myth in this passage from Ladies of the Lake:

Apples were well known to the Celts as otherworldly fruit, and there are numerous stories in which heroes are found sleeping beneath apple trees and are carried off by otherworldly women, or again are offered apples which have the effect of bespelling them so that they waken in fairyland.

The White Goddess summons the God Bran to the Land of Youth with a “silver white-blossomed apple branch from Emain in which the bloom and branch were one.” When the Irish hero, Oisin, is taken to the Land of Youth, he sees himself mounted on a white horse, pursuing a beautiful girl on a dark horse who bears in her hand a golden apple. A beautiful woman gives another Irish hero, Conle, son of Conn, an apple, which nourishes him for a month but also makes him long for her home, the island of women. In Scandinavian myth, the goddess Idhunn keeps golden apples in Asgard which confer immortality.

The Apples of Love
The apple is also an emblem of love and sexuality. Frey sent gold apples to Gerda as a marriage offer. Aristophanes wrote about dancing girls enticing young men by tossing apples at them. Lucian uses the same metaphor when he writes of a courtesan who complains her lover is “throwing apples” at another girl.

In analyzing the fifth panel of the famous unicorn tapestries, John Williamson writes

And so it is appropriate that the unicorn falls in love with the maid under an apple tree — the tree of Venus. Under this spell, the unicorn is rendered helpless because of the overpowering amorous instincts aroused in him by the sight of the lovely maiden. And because of this erotic enchantment, the unicorn meets his death.

Williamson goes on to associate the killing of the unicorn with the death of the Holly King, representing the Old Year.

The Golden Branch
The branches exchanged by the Romans on New Year's Day, hung with sweets and gilded fruits, recall another emblem of the Celtic Otherworld: the magical branch, which is hung with bells, birds, blossoms, apples, nuts and acorns. Like the birds of Rhiannon, the branch produces faery music which lulls listeners to sleep. Master poets carried golden branches; lesser poets silver ones. Poets used the branches to announce their presence and change the atmosphere when they entered the room. Cormac mac Art, a third century Irish king, had a silver branch with three golden apples, given to him by Manannan mac Lir, the god of the sea, which healed the sick and wounded when he shook it.

The Celtic branch reminds us also of the golden bough of Juno, which Aeneas must find and present to Persephone, if he wishes to visit the Underworld. Frazer in The Golden Bough posits that the golden bough is mistletoe which grew in the groves of Diana at Nemi and was part of the rituals of selection and sacrifice surrounding the sacred king, who served as consort to the goddess during his reign.

Tom Cowan in his book on Celtic shamanism compares the magical branch to the World Tree, a common image in shamanic religions, for shamans often describe ascending the tree in trance. Clearly the branch and the apple are passports into the Other World.

In a discussion of the apple tree in the Unicorn Tapestries, after reviewing many of the myths described above, plus others, John Williamson concludes,

the apple tree is mythologically identified with love, death, and birth. Therefore, the virgin placed by the designer under the apple tree in this fifth tapestry is the amalgamation of these three moments of human life, in other words, she is the Triple Goddess.

The Apples of the Sun
The branch hung with golden fruit is found in both Greek and Celtic mythology. The Greeks believed that the three Hesperides, daughters of the Night, lived in a garden far to the West of the world, the place where the chariot horses of the Sun rested after their long journey across the sky. In the center of this garden Hera planted the golden apple-tree which she received from Gaia as a wedding gift. As the Eleventh Labor, Heracles sailed there in a boat given to him by the sun god, and brought back three golden apples from this tree. During his Twelfth Labor, Heracles took the Cornucopia filled by the Hesperides with golden fruit down to Tartarus as a gift for Plutus, whose name derives from the word for wealth. The Cornucopia is an emblem of abundance.

Saule & the Golden Apples of the Sun by Joanna Powell Colbert. Used with permission.

Making Pomanders
You can make a pomander with oranges, apples, lemons or limes. In his column in The Herb Companion, Andy Van Hevlingen says that he likes to use small, smooth-skinned tangerines with an attached stem so he can tie a ribbon to the stem. He uses a large needle to prick holes in the fruit, then pushes in cloves, separated into two piles — those with attached heads and those without--so he can make patterns.

Stud the surface evenly and closely with cloves, completely covering the fruit. Don't leave the pomander half finished for the skin will harden once pierced.

Many recipes for pomanders recommend rolling the pomander in a bowl of powdered orris root and cinnamon or allspice. I don't like this (and neither does Van Hevlingen) because it gums up the pattern. It is supposed to increase the fragrance of the pomander but I suspect it has more to do with increasing its magical powers and probably replaces the wheat flour (conjuring abundance) in which the Calennig is rolled.

Von Hevlingen puts his pomanders on newspapers in a well-ventilated location and turns them daily. In a heated house, they should dry within a week or so. You can tie ribbons around then and hang them on the Christmas tree or give them out as New Year's gifts.

There are many variations of the pomander theme. Maggie Oster mentions an early type of pomander made by combining beeswax with herbs and spices, then rolling them into a ball, which suggests another way to make them, although I have not seen a recipe for this method. Helen Farias floated clove-studded oranges in the punch bowl at her fabulous Santa Lucia parties. For these decorative pomanders, the cloves were placed in patterns to make sun symbols. Or you might try making a Calennig by poking grains of rice and sprigs of evergreen into an apple and displaying it on a tripod of chopsticks.

Just remember as you are sitting and poking cloves into oranges, that you are not simply making pomanders, but participating in a sacred craft that has been practised for centuries, that brings together the images of wealth, death and sexuality, all the gifts of the Goddess.

This article first appeared in The Beltane Papers, Issue 8, Autumn/Winter 1995.

Budapest, Z, Grandmother of Time, Harper San Francisco 1989
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Carey, Diana and Judy Large, Family Festivals and Food, Gloucestershire: Hawthorn Press 1982
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Crow, WB, The Occult Properties of Herbs, Samuel Weiser 1969
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Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990
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Williamson, John, The Oak King, the Holly King and the Unicorn: The Myths and Symbolism of the Unicorn Tapestries, Harper & Row 1986

Spiral orange pomander

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