The First Christmas
According to the Gospel Of Matthew, the adoration of the magi after the birth of Jesus represents the not only the first Christmas, but also the first 'giving' of gifts at the Christmastime.
These travelers from the east, also know as the 'Wise Men' or 'Three Kings,' most likely arrived some time after the birth of the Savior of the common era. Although typically portrayed in the modern navitity alongside the adoration of the shepherds, the magi most likely - historically speaking - arrived 12 days after the virgin birth. Hence we know this period as the 12 Days of Christmas, culminating on Epiphany (January 6) or "Little Christmas."
It was these late arrivals, travelling the Spice Roads from China (the East, the Orient), who arrived bearing gifts - and only the finest. Three to be precise: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Symbolically Kingship, Diety and Death.
We Three Kings
"We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar...
"Born a king on Bethlehem's plain, gold I bring him to crown him again...
"Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume, breathes a life of gathering gloom..."
So wrote Episcopal Bishop John Henry Hopkins Jr in his 1857 hymn.
While there seems to be a historical, cultural, linuistic or religious ambiguity as to whether these travellers were kings, wise, magi or astronomers, there is a specificity to the gifts they bore. Apart from their metaphoric representaion, these gifts have a temporal Earthly value, and while that of gold is apparent to a comtemporay audience, frankincense and myrrh may require a little context.
Frankincense and Myrrh
Frankincense and myrrh, both plant-based substances, are not entirely unlike shellac (made from the hardened substance excreted by the lac bug of South Asia) or amber (fossilized sap of conifer trees). Both are derived from the viscous sap of shrubby trees (pictured above) thoughout the Levant (North Africa and the Near East), the boswellia and commiphora, respectively. Allowed to harden this resin may be burnt as incense or steamed to release essential oils. The resin is non-toxic and may be consumed (chewed like gum) or used cosmetically on the skin. Their use has been dated for at least 5,000 years and certainly made its way throughout the Spice Trade and as far as China.
Thoughout antiquity myriad uses have imbibed frankincense and myrrh including cosmetic, medicinal and religious. Myrrh is sited as far back as Exodus 30 (associated particularly with the funereral) and frankinsense harvesting is described by the Greek historian Herodotus. Ground frankincense char was famously used as eye makeup by elite Egyptian women and myrrh oil as a rejuvenater for the skin. Dried or in oil form these substances have been used as antiseptics, anti-inflamatories and analgesics throughout the historical epochs of Aries and Pisces (Hebrew and Christian eras). Their use as perfumes and incense are well known from paganism through Catholism.
Today frankincense and myrrh are still valued, although perhaps not worth their weight in gold. Modern Chinese and ayurvedic medicine do incorporate the healing power of these plants, but in the West they are valued primarily as perfumes, essential oils and incense.
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James Reynolds is an artist, author and entrepreneur who has worked in the banking, floral and retail industries. He holds a B.S. in Finance (Economics & Political Science) from the University of Massachusetts.