Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Have Yourself a Myrrhy Little Christmas

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."

~ T. S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi

Today, January 6th, is a day with many special names — the Feast of the Epiphany in many countries, Little Christmas or Nollaig Bheag in Ireland, La Befana in Italy, Drie Koningen (Three Kings' Day) in the Netherlands and Belgium and the Day the Christmas Decorations Come Down in the house where I grew up. In one way or another, the names commemorate the visit of the Magi — Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, the three wise men who, according to the Christian New Testament, followed a star and ended up in a stable in Nazareth with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Gold, of course, is always a great gift. Frankincense? One could never have enough incense in pre-deodorant, pre-refrigeration times. But myrrh? What in the name of all that's holy was myrrh? Myrrh gnawed at me every Christmas of my childhood. It was good enough for a gift, but it sounded like a curse. (A related mystery: why I never looked it up in the encylopedia.)

Fast forward 20 years or so. I was sitting in the offices of Dr. Neville Carmical, who was at the time my ear-nose-and-throat specialist, staring at the sundries on the taboret beside the exam chair. And there it was: a jar marked "myrrh." Dr. Carmical was and I'm sure still is a lovely man. He wore a headband with a light on the front, like a coal miner. He soothed the sore throats of hapless opera singers and relieved the terrible headaches of chronic sinus sufferers. Seeing myrrh in his possession immediately transformed it from a curse to a healing murmur. Never underestimate the regenerative powers of context.

So here is the low-down on myrrh. According to Wikipedia, myrrh (that's it at right) is a sticky, fragrant resin made from the sap of various North African trees. Used for perfumes and incense in ancient times, it was highly valued and extremely expensive, but not so expensive as to phase the Emperor Nero, who was said to have "burned a year's worth of myrrh at the funeral of his wife, Poppaea."*

Today, says Wikipedia, myrrh is valued for its antimicrobial properties. You can buy a one pound bag of the stuff for about $20.00 on Amazon. Myrrh oil is a steal at $7.88 an ounce.

"O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi."
~ William Sydney Porter (O. Henry), "The Gift of the Magi"

*All the burning myrrh in the world could not make up for the fact that Nero killed Poppaea — according to legend, he kicked her in the stomach when she was pregnant. Then again, if there is a hell, Poppaea went straight there. She was a woman in the tradition of Catherine de Medici and Lady Macbeth, encouraging Nero to kill his mother (Agrippina the Younger), his first wife (Octavia) and the philosopher Seneca. No word on her feelings about fiddling.


  1. Myrrh is for funerals. Imagine giving a baby something that's only used when he dies. And yet, that's the mystery and the wonder in the Christ story/legend. Mary knows right from the start the fate of her tiny baby.

  2. Now that you put it that way, it's downright macabre. Thanks for commenting.