It seems to me that Christmas has largely become a two month frenzy of buying and giving gifts. Oh sure, there are still religious aspects for Christians with the celebration of Advent and Christmas itself, but for the most part the gift-buying and giving season now starts as early as Halloween and builds into a near panic through the several weeks of “Black Friday” right up to Christmas Eve. The truth of the matter is that the health our national economy now apparently depends to a large degree on the Christmas gift-buying season to stay afloat.
Thinking about this got me to reflecting about how giving Christmas gifts got started. Tradition traces the custom back to the first Christmas when, according to the book of Matthew, Chapter 2, Magi, or wise men, followed a bright star to Bethlehem where Jesus had been born: “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11). Don’t know about you, but that’s the only place I’ve ever have heard of frankincense and myrrh, which got me kinda wondering about these first Christmas gifts.
The gift of gold is pretty straight forward. We don’t know whether the gold was in coins, “raw” nuggets, ingots, or jewelry, but gold has an intrinsic value, that is a value in and of itself, regardless of the form it’s in. The value of a given amount of gold can vary so that a specific amount of “raw” gold, when fashioned into a necklace of gold links, may well increase in value several times.
Today gold as such, including gold ingots and coins, remains a very valuable commodity but is rarely given as presents in this “bulk” form – having been supplanted by cash or gift cards. Gold given as jewelry, however, is in great demand, especially as gifts from men to women. (Interestingly enough, the TV commercials featuring such gifts suggest a “quid pro quo” situation which is Latin for “one thing in return for another”. The male gives the gold jewelry in expectation of something in return from the female – ‘nuff said on that subject.)
Okay, so what about the frankincense and myrrh? Frankly, I didn’t know much about them so I had to do some research and here’s a quick summary of what I found. While gold as a precious gift is easily understandable, modern scholars estimate the value of the frankincense and myrrh was far greater that of gold. You see, they provided healing on an emotional, physical and spiritual level and thus are more than simply symbols of the season.
Frankincense and myrrh are from the same plant family (Burseraceae) which grow as small shrub-like trees in dry climates; such as India, Oman, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Both are derived from tree sap, or gum with frankincense, a milky white resin, being extracted from one species of Burseraceae tree, while myrrh is a reddish resin that comes from a different one. The processes for extracting the tree sap for both frankincense and myrrh are essentially the same – by making a cut in the tree’s trunk. The sap kinda seeps from the cut and forms droplets that harden on the tree and are then collected.
Myrrh has a natural medicinal aroma and is now commonly found in many skin creams, toothpaste and other cosmetic products, but it also has a a number of other beneficial uses such as anti-septic, anti-fungal, anti- depressant, as well as in meditation and aroma therapy where it’s used for its calming and cooling effect. There are too many other uses to list here, but you get the idea.
Frankincense, in addition to providing a calming influence while being applied as an oil, likewise has a number of positive attributes such as relieving stress, acting as an antiseptic cleaner, helping prevent tooth decay, relieving symptoms of indigestion and gas; acting as an anti-wrinkle agent, and a whole slew of others. How about them apples?
When a body comes to think of it, it kinda looks like those three wise men a couple of thousand years ago really had perfect gifts to give to a baby – frankincense and myrrh for the family’s health and gold for wealth. As for today, I’m pretty sure giving that lady friend a bottle of frankincense oil wouldn’t have the same kind of “quid pro quo” response as that to gold jewelry. At least that’s how it seems to me.
Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.