Gifts of the Magi

December 22, 2018

The gospel of Matthew tells the story of wise men from the East who follow the Star of Bethlehem to find Baby Jesus and give him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Have you ever wondered what frankincense and myrrh actually are? I can’t say that I gave much thought to this mystery until I stumbled upon them in one of my rarely read tomes about plants. Yes, they are both plant products!

 

Frankincense is the sap of Boswellia sacra. This tree is native to Somalia and Yemen. The trees are tapped two or three times a year. Resin exudes from the wounds and is collected after it dries. It can be chewed like gum or dissolved to make a tincture or salve. It has been used to ease arthritis and as a digestive aid.   

 

Myrrh is resin from the thorny Commiphora myrrha tree which grows in Somalia, Ethiopia and Oman. It too can be dissolved or chewed and was used to treat joint pain and inflammation. The name “myrrh” is from the Greek word for perfume, for which it was also used. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is regarded to be both bitter and spicy, a blood-moving combination.

 

These rare resins have been traded for 5,000 years. Between 300 BC and 300 AD, the resins were exported by ship from southern Oman to Mesopotamia, India and China.They are first mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 37:25. In this verse, Joseph’s ​​jealous brothers spot a caravan of Ishmaelite traders bound for Egypt to sell frankincense, myrrh and the balm of Gilead. (That fabled balm is an ointment made from the resin of Commiphora opobalsamun, the Arabian balsam tree, found in modern Jordan.) The brothers rather than kill their younger brother sell him to the traders.

 

During Biblical times, both frankincense and myrrh were important in Hebrew rituals. In Exodus chapter 30, God instructs Moses to make an anointing oil from myrrh and an incense from frankincense. The incense symbolized prayer rising to heaven, holiness, righteousness and the divine name. Both were valuable, so Mary and Joseph are said to have sold them to finance their flight into Egypt.

 

The arrival of the wise men is celebrated on January 6 as the Feast of the Epiphany. In Spain this is a more festive holiday than Christmas. Called Dia De Los Reyes (Day ​​of the Kings), it is the day Spanish children receive their holiday gifts. They write letters to the three kings and leave their shoes by the door the evening of January 5, hoping to find them full of goodies in the morning.

 

Winter is an unpropitious season for horticulture but master gardener Ann Bartlett whiles it away thinking wistfully about the role of plants in history, religion and practically everything. 

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