The Gifts of the Magi

Tuesday is January 6, the Twelfth Day of Christmas. Christians celebrate this day as the Epiphany, when the Magi arrived from the East seeking the new king. They brought with them three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

These were gifts of great luxury and honor. Frankincense and myrrh are both made from the resin of trees found on the Arabian Peninsula, and areas of North Africa. They were valued for their scent and used in religious rituals and as perfume and incense, something only the temples and the very rich could afford.

But frankincense and myrrh show up in ancient medical texts as well, some dating from 1500 B.C. They were suggested for treating battlefield wounds and used as anti-inflammatory, analgesic and antiseptic. In fact, there’s a long list of ancient suggested uses: digestion, asthma, congestion, cough, hemorrhoids, arthritis, dry and cracked skin and gum disease.

The resins were so valued that the Incense Route was born: the trade path for frankincense, myrrh and other spices. It flourished in the Arabian Peninsula for 800 years, meeting up with other major trade roads heading to and from the Far East. The route was incredibly profitable, and cities grew up along the way to accommodate the traffic. Then diminished trade in the 3rd century caused the trade routes to alter, and just like that, the towns and the trade disappeared into the desert landscape.

With them went a general understanding of the medicinal uses of frankincense and myrrh, at least in the Western world. They are still used in Eastern forms of healing and medicine. But if I can be completely cynical for a moment, we are trained in the US to believe we can have “better living through chemistry” and that Eastern medicine is New Age-y or un-Christian or under-educated.

Which is not true. It’s an ancient and biblical wisdom developed and shared through-out the Far and Middle East for thousands of years before Jesus was born. It’s part of what made the gifts of the Magi so valuable.

For the first time this morning, I had this thought: From Mary’s perspective, perhaps the frankincense and myrrh were not gifts of wealth, but gifts of health for her baby.

And so for us.

Maybe someday, Western and Eastern medicine will be complementary, used to treat the whole patient. In the meantime, I have frankincense and myrrh essential oils in my medicine cabinet to use—after consultation with our doctors—for things that do not require more serious medicine, like wound healing and scar reduction. My friend is having her teenage son use it for his acne. In the next few months, I will be working with a local goat milk vendor to see what happens when her amazing face butter meets the anti-aging trio of frankincense, myrrh and helichrysum.

All of these are uses suggested in my copy of the Modern Essentials Usage Guide (6th edition, 2014). Always use in consultation with a doctor in case of interaction with certain drugs.

For more information and to purchase frankincense and myrrh essential oils, visit

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