Frankincense and myrrh are significant at Christmas because, according to the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible, they were among the gifts the Magi gave to Jesus. The story is told in the famous Christmas carol, “We Three Kings.”
According to legend, the three wise men came to Bethlehem from the east, guided by a bright star, and presented gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus at the Epiphany, which Christians celebrate on January 6. They were standard gifts to honor a king in the ancient world, with gold being a precious metal, frankincense used as a perfume or incense and myrrh as an anointing oil.
Some biblical scholars believe the three gifts also had spiritual symbolism, with gold representing Jesus’ kingship, frankincense a symbol of his priestly role and myrrh a premonition of his death. Other scholars say the frankincense represented the divinity of Jesus, while the myrrh, a symbol of death and burial, represented his humanity.
In 2012, scientists at Cardiff University in Wales found frankincense is an effective herbal remedy to treat the symptoms of arthritis, and suggested it may have been chosen as a gift for Jesus because of its healing properties.
While the Magi are often depicted in nativity scenes at the manger surrounding the infant Jesus, biblical scholars say Jesus was likely one or two years old, and living in a house with his mother Mary, when the wise men arrived.