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Gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Beneath the fragrant Christmas tree lie piled the gifts in their gay wrappings. Eager hands reach for them, and the children seize their own with innocent greediness. But in this first glow of the holy morning, before we tear at the bright papers and ribbons, let us pause to remember the meaning of presents on Christmas Day. It is very ancient, as old as the gospel itself. A gift given at Christmastime symbolizes the love that Christians bear to one another, in the name of One who loved them all.

Wise men indeed were they that first intended this, and wise men were the first Christmas givers. Only in St. Matthew's Gospel do we read about them, and he tells it in this wise:

"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him."

Thus begins the second chapter of Matthew; and later the apostle adds:

"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."

How strangely scented and melodiously ringing are those three names!All the distant East, all the splendor of kings, the mystery that lies in things faraway and long ago, come to us in those syllables.

Myrrh, and frankincense, and gold! Why were these things chosen? Whence did they come? And what, in actuality, are they?

They are emblems of princely generosity, costly now as in ancient times, and still surviving at many a Christian altar.

The Magi brought their best to the Newborn. They must have felt that nothing poor earth could offer to the King of Heaven would be more appropriate than gold. Well may we agree with them today, for gold is one of the noble metals. No single acid can destroy it, nor will it rust away, like iron or tin. As a consequence, it is almost never found as a compound, but in free nuggets or as dust, or allowed with such metals as mercury or silver. No one can successfully imitate or fake gold, so heavy and incorruptible is it. And it is a metal easily turned to the uses of beauty. It has been woven into fabrics at least since Biblical times (Exodus 39:2-3 ), for its ductility, as chemists say, is so great that a single grain of fine gold may be drawn out into a wire 1/1000 of an inch in diameter, extending for a length of about one mile.

Pure, supple, almost indestructible, gold is indeed a royal metal among all the base ones occurring in the earth's crust.

The expert hammer of a goldbeater, whose ancient art is referred to by Homer, can beat an ounce of gold into a sheet two hundred feet square, a mere shimmering film. Ordinarily, such beaten gold is made into "books" containing twenty-five leaves apiece, each three and onequarter inches square. When pure gold becomes this thin, it will transmit light almost like glass, but dimly, letting only the green rays through. With this gold the artist gilds his statue, the bookbinder stamps the title on his fine volume.

In the ancient world into which Christianity was born, gold was far rarer than now; the golden ornaments retrieved by archaeologists from graves in Troy or Crete or Egypt were royal or noble treasures exclusively. Not every wife, then, could wear a precious little band on her fourth finger. But as gold became a medium of exchange, it traveled the world. It came to Palestine from Egyptian Nubia, which we call the northern Sudan; also from the Midianites, who wandered through what is now central Jordan, south and east of the Dead Sea. Where did the Three Wise Men get it? As we are not sure where they themselves came from, we can but guess that--if they truly were "kings of Orient," as the old carols call them--they may have brought their gold from the mines of Indian Mysore.

In any case, it was in love and reverence that the Wise Men offered to the Christ Child the most precious stuff the ancient world knew.

Since those same ancient days, also, many have believed that "incense owns a Deity nigh." No one knows who first lit incense to his God, but doubtless he who did it reasoned that, since all of us enjoy agreeable smells,

God probably liked them too. So as times grew less savage and the rituals of worship more spiritualized, burning incense was substituted for the smoke of sacrificial flesh upon the altar. But that sweet reek was not common until the time of Jeremiah. After his day, it was made from an expensive and elaborate formula, containing sixteen different ingredients, with only priests allowed to concoct it. And the chief element in this holy recipe was frankincense, the second gift of the wise men to the Child.

Frankincense is a resin, from a kind of tree held so sacred of old that in southern Arabia and Ethiopia, where it grew, only a few particularly pure persons were allowed even to approach it.

Legends told that the precious trees were guarded by winged serpents. All this makes the tree sound fabulous, but it does indeed exist in Nature, and botanists have named it. It belongs to the genus B oswellia, and is a member of the torchwood family. This means little to most of us, unless we happen to have seen the rare elephant trees that grow in the Gila and Imperial valleys in our own far Southwest--the only members of the family native to the continental United States.

To conjure up a frankincense tree, think of a tree about fifteen feet high, with a patchy bark like a sycamore's. It is as crooked as a snake and all but leafless. The few leaves are compound, like those of an ash, and they sprout at the end of the crazy twigs. The flowers and fruit vaguely resemble a cherry's, although this tree is neither sycamore nor ash nor cherry; indeed, the scaly bark and contorted limbs remind one more of some archaic reptile than of the pleasant shady comfort that we call a tree.

To obtain the precious frankincense itself, an Arab cuts a slash in the trunk, as a Vermonter cuts a maple, and then strips off a narrow piece of bark, about five inches long, below the cut. The sap slowly oozes out and is allowed to harden for about three months. At last it is collected in lumps, to be shipped from such strange and faraway places as Berbera and Aden, near the mouth of the Red Sea, and Bombay.

These lumps are yellow or colorless, dusty-looking, with a bitter taste. But they burn with a bright white flame, and then there arises to heaven that sweet, heavy perfume of mystery the Wise Men thought pleasing to God.

This ritual of burning frankincense had been beloved of the Old Testament worshippers long before the night of the Star and the journey of the three wondering Magi toward it in the dark. But Christians did not adopt frankincense till five whole centuries after the Nativity. It is, however, approved for use in the New Testament. Today it finds a place chiefly in the Catholic Church, whose shrines are still full of its perfume. Incense today is compounded partly of the real frankincense and partly of the resin of a very different tree, the spruce fir of northern Europe.

Nowadays the source of true frankincense is not so much Arabia and Ethiopia as the island of Socotra off Africa's eastern tip--a remote, mountainous, harborless island of stones and thorny thickets, where the frankincense trees were, at least until recent times, guarded by the subjects of an Arabian sultan.

From this same distant part of the world comes the last of the gifts of the Magi, myrrh, a shrub related to frankincense, of the genus

Commiphora. The sap of myrrh is extracted in the same way as that of frankincense, and it comes in small lumps of reddish-brown resin. But its symbolism is more somber. The word myrrh comes from the Hebrew mar, meaning "bitter." The ancient Egyptians used this resin in embalming, and hence its connection with solemn occasions. Was this a strange gift for an Infant King?

Not for one destined to die for his people.

Such were the first of all Christmas presents, birthday presents to the little Lord of Light. They were offered in a spirit of wondering humility and love.

In all that we ourselves may give, gaily in the modern manner, may there linger too some sweet savor, some hidden glint, of the greater love that gives the celebration of Christmas its real meaning!:
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Title Annotation:Christmas symbols
Author:Peattie, Donald Culross
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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