Taking them in alphabetical order, let's start with Allspice, then Cinnamon, Cloves, Ginger and Nutmeg/Mace.
Least familiar to an American Christmas, the first runner-up is the all-American flavor of Allspice. The dried fruit of the Pimenta dioica tree, this one is, interestingly, native to the Americas. (Maybe that's why it's left out in holiday recipes that are older than this country.) If you do omit the Allspice, you might not be able to put your finger on exactly what's missing, but it's Allspice. The fruit of the female trees (as you might expect, with a name like dioica, the male and female flowers are on separate plants) are picked when green and unripe and dried in the sun, says McCormick. Pimenta dioica was found growing on Jamaica by Christopher Columbus. To the fifteenth century Europeans, it tasted like a mixture of the valuable Eastern spices Clove, Nutmeg and Cinnamon, so they called it 'all spices' or Allspice. "The principle oil extracted from Allspice is eugenol, the same oil extracted from Cloves," says tradewindsfruit.com. Look for Allspice in apple and pumpkin pies, but also in roast pork, any Jamaican or Caribbean "jerk" recipe, meat stews, barbecue sauce or any recipe where you would find its complement, Cinnamon. There are also several fragrant but unrelated plants such as Carolina Allspice (Calycanthus floridus) which have borrowed the "Allspice" moniker because they reminded someone of all spicy smells.
There is a species, Canella winterana, which is native to the North American continent, and called Wild Cinnamon or Cinnamon Bark. It was remarked on by the naturalist in Columbus' second voyage. Rolls of Cinnamon bark are pictured in the thumbnail picture, courtesy of Charles Haynes of Flickr.
Clove: Syzygium aromaticum (formerly called Eugenia aromaticum) is a tree which can grow 40 feet tall but cannot survive below 50° F. All parts of the tree—leaves, bark, and flowers—are extremely aromatic, but it is the unopened flower buds which are the Cloves used in cooking. Cloves also contain eugenol (named after the old species name); in fact, the oil obtained from Cloves is 70-90% eugenol. Clove oil was historically used as an oral analgesic and is still an important ingredient in, for instance, Clove cigarettes or Clove chewing gum. Cloves are also used in Pomander Balls.
Clove is another spice where a little bit goes a long way; I wouldn't make a beef stew without a whole Clove stuck into an onion, but you really don't want to be the person who bites into the whole Clove! My daughter actually did bite into a whole Clove once which I had baked into cookies, since I was out of ground Clove. To this day, even the smell makes her tongue numb, she says.
Ginger: Perhaps you stir-fry Asian-style vegetables using fresh Ginger root. To me, Ginger means gingerbread houses and gingerbread men. Ginger or ginger root is the rhizome of the plant , consumed as a delicacy, medicine, or spice. It lends its name to its genus and family Zingiberaceae. The cultivation of Ginger root began in Southeast Asia and spread from there. Although Ginger is the dominant spice in, say, ginger ale, ginger beer or ginger snaps, its more subtle presence is required in other holiday foods like pumpkin pie. (Pumpkin pie spice contains Cinnamon, Allspice, Nutmeg, Ginger, Mace and Cloves, according to McCormick.com, a terribly interesting site for me at this time of year). All ginger is harvested by hand, says McCormick. To grow your own Ginger, see this article and to make ginger beer, click here.
Nutmeg, and its sibling, Mace, are both derived from a tree called Myristica fragrans. It bears a fruit the size of an apricot, and the pit is Nutmeg. Nutmeg is the signature taste of egg nogs (which aren't even made with eggs any more). Nutmeg is also a key flavor in custards, French toast, pumpkin pies, quiches and some say, cake doughnuts.
Two other holiday sensory delights are oranges and peppermint, neither of which is a spice. Peppermint is a Old World herb (like other mints) which flavors foods, drinks and candy, heals certain maladies and perfumes with its cleansing bouquet. Of course, candy canes are traditionally flavored with peppermint. Add a candy cane to your coffee or hot chocolate, or sprinkle crushed candy canes on top of cookies.
Oranges were cultivated in China as early as 2500 BC and made their way westward, both as marmalade and citrus-flavored preserves, but also as fresh twigs which were planted, first in the Mediterranian region and then along sailors' trade routes to prevent scurvy. By the end of the 19th century, oranges were in plentiful supply in Florida, Arizona and California. The trans-continental railway, completed in 1869, made sure that middle class children all over the country could have an orange in their Christmas stocking. Make a Pomander Ball by sticking Cloves into an orange or drink some Constant Comment™ tea to spice up your holiday.
Incidentally, for the freshest, most flavorful spices, use them in the closest to original form possible. Grate your own Nutmeg (they even sell Nutmeg in a little grater now), use whole Cloves and whole Cinnamon. Mace and Allspice are more difficult to grind yourself, but fresh Ginger is available in the produce section at almost any big grocery store and is no more diffcult to cook with than Garlic. So, if you're feeling a little nostalgic, a little misty-eyed for the Christmas the way it used to be, add some spices. Bake a pie; even if you use a pre-made crust and filling from a can, add Cinnamon, Allspice, Nutmeg, Ginger, Mace and Cloves.
PICTURE OF NUTMEG WITH MACE MADE AVAILABLE BY WIKIMEDIA BY Brocken Inaglory. Cinnamon (Charles Haynes) in thumbnail, cloves (zoyachubby) and ginger (andresmh) available through Creative Commons.