Christmas is gently creeping up on us and the tills are merrily ringing as we pound the high street in search of suitable offerings to please our kith and kin. But however far you travel and however much you spend in your seasonally-sanctioned extravagance, you’d have to go some way to beat the efforts of the inaugural yuletide gift-givers: Melchior, Casper and Balthazar. These three – the magi of the nativity story – tramped across the Middle East to present Christmas’ namesake with their precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The significance of these gifts gives biblical scholars much meat to chew upon; thought to be an acknowledgement of Jesus’ kingship or representative of his godhood and death. But these days, while manys an item of gold will be carefully interred in a paper prison to await liberation on Christmas morn, it’s unlikely you’ll find either of the others in your stocking. And would you even know it if you did?

Well, prepare to find out: frankincense and myrrh are tree resins (frankincense from Boswellia trees and myrrh from Commiphora, both natives to the Arabian peninsula) and 2000 years ago, they were certainly fit gifts for a king. At the height of their popularity they were worth their weight in gold, and were heavily traded.

Which is which?

They have been used since antiquity by a host of cultures, principally as incense in religious ceremony – both are listed in the Jewish holy book, the Talmud, as ingredients of the sacred blend of fragrant spices and incense called ketaret, which was used to perfume the air in temple rituals and worship. Their fragrant properties also found them applications in cosmetic perfume and they had various medicinal uses.

Though the trade has slowed today, many of these uses persist – frankincense is still to be found in perfumes and cosmetics and myrrh’s antiseptic properties have secured it a place in mouthwash and toothpaste, among other things. More recently, these riches of the plant kingdom’s treasure trove have been plundered for their potential to fight disease. Frankincense’s boswellic acid, for example, has proven to be effective at controlling cancer cells and a sesquiterpenoid isolated from myrrh extract was also shown to have promising anticancer activity. If only someone would mount them on gold nanoparticles…

Perhaps more interesting, incensole acetate, another of frankincense’s chemical constituents, was recently assigned psychoactive properties – acting as a sedative and reducing anxiety in mice. Its role in spiritual ceremonies is somewhat more practical in this light.

So there you have it. A whistle-stop tour of frankincense and myrrh; perhaps now you know a little more than you did. And, if you’re giving gold and perfume this year, why not follow a wise man’s example and throw in some mouthwash too?

Philip Robinson

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