They came from distant lands, these kings and wanderers following a star. With them they packed precious gifts fit for a King: gold, myrrh and frankincense. We know what gold is and we know that myrrh was considered then to be an ointment of great value in the lands of the desert. But what is frankincense?
Frankincense is the sap of the Frankincense tree, found these days in the lands of Arabia, Ethiopia, Somalia and India. It is used now much as it was then – as incense. When the sap dries and becomes hard the yellow lumps of resin are crushed and burned, providing a pleasing aroma and a light smoke that to perhaps to the people of antiquity symbolized prayer ascending to heaven. It was most often used in houses of worship, both public and private, and is mentioned in many places in both the Old and the New Testaments.
For the Jews especially frankincense was highly valued. Frankincense was one of the four components of the sacred incense burned in the sanctuary. Because frankincense was valued and known for its sacred purposes in worship it is believed that it was given to the Baby Jesus in recognition of His divinity.
Evidence exists of frankincense and its value in other cultures and amongst royalty in many lands. King Tutankhamen, for example, was buried with frankincense. In Egypt the black eyeliner used prominently in art of Egyptian characters in history was made from frankincense.
Back in ancient times frankincense was supplied out of Arabia and was so scarce only the very rich could afford the luxury of it. This too is looked upon as a reason that it was given to the Christchild.
Frankincense has long been identified as a special element in many societies, thanks in part to the exposure it receives in the Bible. Distant places where frankincense trees cannot grow nor be cultivated use frankincense still for sacred purposes.
For centuries, the British monarch offered a gift of gold, frankincense and myrrh at the Chapel Royal on Epiphany. Knights of the Garter, Thistle, and Bath guarded the King on his reenactment of the pilgrimage of the Magi. King George III killed off that tradition although he did allow the gifts to be sent by proxy for many years. Royalty in Spain evidently held the same tradition for many years.
Frankincense today is a minor industry in itself. It comes in various grades and is used for many commercial, as well as religious, purposes. Like jewelry, the color, size, shape, aroma and origin of frankincense is graded and priced in the marketplace. It remains as popular now as it was in antiquity.