January 28, 2020

Bringing Home the Gifts of the Magi

Frankincense and myrrh

Janine Pineo Photo | Frankincense and myrrh

“When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”
– Matthew 2:10-11

• By Janine Pineo •

I was thumbing through a gardening catalog this fall when I came across a little wooden chest filled with things that were of the greatest mystery to me when I was a child.

The brass-trimmed container brimmed with nuggets of frankincense and myrrh.

I bought it for myself and my family to share the simple wonder of having something that was a part of our lives through every telling of the Christmas story, but that we had never experienced. Gold I knew; frankincense and myrrh were exotic unknowns but familiar because of the story of the three wise men.

When the chest arrived, I realized they were still a great mystery to me, for I didn’t know that frankincense and myrrh came from trees.

Which probably explains why it was for sale in a gardening catalog.

Frankincense and myrrh are both resins, or hardened tree sap, that is gathered even today much like the sap from spruce trees was collected. (I remember my grandfather giving me a piece of spruce “gum” to chew when I was a kid. It’s a wonder I didn’t end up permanently singing “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth.”)

Frankincense comes from a genus of trees, Boswellia, found in Somalia and the southern Arabian Peninsula. The resin begins its formation when an incision is made in the trunk of the tree and the milklike juice is secreted, hardening when exposed to air. The cut is then deepened and after about three months, the sap has hardened into yellowish “tears” that are collected during the months from May to September.

Myrrh is gathered from trees in the genus Commiphora found on arid hillsides in Ethiopia, Somalia and Arabia. It and frankincense are part of the same family of incense trees, Burseraceae. Myrrh trees are small, reaching only 9 feet, and the resin is obtained when the bark splits naturally over ducts containing secretions that harden when exposed to air. Like frankincense, it also can be purposely cut and then gathered when the reddish-brown “tears” form.

The true source of myrrh was long questioned and still in doubt into the 1800s. According to “King’s American Dispensatory” of 1898, the first specimen was identified in the 1820s as a myrrh tree that came from Ghizan in Arabia, a region so parched it was called hell.

Frankincense is just as tenacious. The Somali trees grow on the coast out of polished marble, attached only by a thick mass resembling a concoction of lime and mortar.

From the time of the Magi through today, frankincense and myrrh have been valued mostly as incense. But there have been other uses as well.

Pliny the Elder, the famed Roman naturalist and writer who was a child during the last years of Christ, mentioned frankincense as an antidote to hemlock poisoning. The Romans also used it during religious ceremonies and state occasions and in everyday life.

For the Jews, frankincense was part of their ceremonial incense and was stored with other spices in the House of God at Jerusalem.

The Egyptians used charred frankincense, better known as kohl, as a cosmetic. Ground frankincense mixed with other ingredients was a perfume for the hands.

In China and other Eastern nations, frankincense as a medicine treated everything from leprosy to dysentery to bronchitis.

Modern medicine gives it no special values, although I recently saw a commercial for a “miracle” face cream that touted frankincense as an ingredient.

Myrrh’s uses were similar to those of frankincense as incense.

It also was part of holy oil for the Jews, while the Egyptians employed it in their embalming practices.

Medicine played a bigger role in myrrh’s history. On the short list, it has been used as an astringent wash, a tonic for dyspepsia and as a stimulant for mucous tissues. Even today it is an ingredient in tinctures for sore gums and mouths.

Like frankincense, myrrh remains a key base of many perfumes.

At the time of the birth of Christ, the two resins were worth their weight in gold. Two thousand years later, they are ordinary enough to be bought by commoners in face creams and perfumes.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to my little treasure chest. In the world today, frankincense and myrrh aren’t considered special, but for me, that isn’t true. This gift of the Magi for the king of kings holds as much meaning today as it did 2,000 years ago.

As I’ve been wrapping presents for families and friends, I’ve been pondering the symbolism of my treasure chest. Humans feel a great need to give something precious, something meaningful; that hasn’t changed for 2,000 years.

But in the end, it was the simple gift of themselves – their time, their journey into the unknown, their belief that they were part of something greater than themselves – that meant the most.

It still does.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in December 2000.