The Garden Gate: Are you savvy on the lesser-known first Christmas gifts?

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

We give a great emphasis — and sometimes much money — to the giving of gifts at Christmastime.

We sometimes become so involved that we completely forget that we are commemorating the presenting of gifts by the Magi to the Christ Child.

The Magi — or Wise Men of the East or the Three Kings, as they are variously named — traveled for many miles following the Star of David. Their purpose was to find the infant Jesus and bring him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, chosen because they were the most valuable substances in the ancient world.

Frankincense is obtained from a tree native to southern Arabia, Ethiopia, Somaliland, India and the East Indies. It was obtained by trade and brought by caravan across the deserts.

The frankincense tree is large and beautiful, with star-shaped white or pale green flowers tipped with rose.

The leaves are glossy and similar to those of the mountain ash.

The resin, or gum, of this tree is what is used. It exudes in the form of pale yellow, glistening drops which have a bitter taste and a strong balsamic scent when warmed or burned.

Frankincense is mentioned 22 times in the Bible in the form of incense, and 16 of those are in relation to religious worship.

It is also mentioned twice as a tribute of honor, once as an article of merchandise, and three times as a product of the royal gardens of Solomon as his most exotic plant.

It was often used as incense, and sometimes branches were burned in the temple in sacrificial services of the tabernacle until the time of Solomon’s reign.

Frankincense gum is gathered by making successive incisions in the bark of the tree. The resin “bleeds” from these cuts and can be collected.

The first collection is the most valuable, since it is the purest. Later collections yield a slightly lesser quality of gum.

In the ancient world, as now, most frankincense is used in the making of incense.

This is the most ancient form of perfume known and dates back to prehistory in its simplest forms.

It was used in ancient times as a sacrificial offering and still has this connotation in modern religious use.

In the Bible in the Book of Exodus, the form of incense used for a religious ceremony is described.

“Take unto thee these sweet spices, stacte and onycha, and galburnam, these sweet spices with pure frankincense of like weight, and thou shalt make of it a perfume, a confectionery, after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy. And thou shall beat some of it very small and put it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation.”

In the Book of Numbers, we read: “Take a censer. And put fire there from off the altar and put on it incense.”

Frankincense was highly valued by the ancient Egyptians, who used it for fumigating and embalming.

It was always, as it still is, the most valuable incense resin in the world. The Hebrews held a monopoly of all the frankincense available and controlled the sale of it by others.

Myrrh is also the resinous gum of a tree. “Commephorra myrrh” is native to Arabia, Ethiopia and the Somali coast in eastern Africa. Most of the myrrh used today comes from this region.

The name of this well-known spice is almost the same in any language. Arabic is “murr,” French is “myrrh,” Old English is “mirre,” and the Slavic language is “mur.”

The ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans burned it in their temples, and the Hebrews used it in incense, perfumes and medicines.

According to Webster’s dictionary, the word “myrrophore” is applied to any of the women, especially the three Marys who took spices to the sepulcher of Jesus.

They are usually depicted as carrying jars of myrrh.

The Hebrews had a high regard for it. David sings of its scent, and Solomon delighted in it.

It was an ingredient in Holy Oil and a domestic perfume with aloes, cinnamon and cassia.

As late as the reign of King George III in England, frankincense and myrrh were burned ceremoniously in the royal chapel.

When you think about it all, there is suddenly a new dimension to our Christmas shopping and present giving, which becomes perhaps a little less commercial and a little more religious, as a symbolic act.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.