Wednesday 14 December 2016

Myrrh, Myra and Father Christmas

Image result for christmas cornucopiaIt's surprising the number of people who ask me what myrrh is. It's partly to do with having written a book on Christmas, and partly that people just like saying the word.

The answer is that it's a kind of aromatic resin that you get out little thorny trees in the Middle East. The reason that the Magi turned up with a bunch of the stuff is partly that myrrh was just a nice standard gift. It smells good. You can rub it on yourself, or even use it to freshen your breath (in the sad old days before toothpaste). But in Matthew's Gospel, it almost certainly has a more precise meaning.

Gold was a gift for a king, as it symbolizes worldly wealth and power. Frankincense was often used in religious rituals praising God and therefore points out that Jesus is both King and God. And myrrh was used to embalm the dead. This practice goes back to Ancient Egypt, but it continues in the New Testament where, in John's Gospel, Jesus is finally embalmed thus:

And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. 19v39

So the gift of the Magi was there to signify the little baby's ultimate painful death, which must have been lovely for Mary. Imagine turning up to a baby shower with a shroud.

Anyhow, one place that was very good for harvesting myrrh was in what's now southern Turkey. Indeed, there was a whole city there that was named after its most famous export: Myra. The Bishop of Myra in the early third century AD was called Nicholas, and later he was called Saint Nicholas and later still he was called Sinterklaas, and nowadays we know him as Santa Claus.

That's complete coincidence, of course, but I rather like it. I like the fact that the full proper title of Santa Claus would be Saint Nicholas of Myrrh.

Anyhow, for more such Christmassy curiousities, you can of course snaffle a copy of A Christmas Cornucopia. It's around and about and terribly available from AmazonBlackwell'sBook DepositoryFoyles and Waterstones.

Image result for christmas cornucopia
That's the ticket


  1. Santa Claus was taken to America by the Dutch after the Reformation. They had rejected the Catholic vebneration of saints but couldn't ignore Nicholas, for reasons of tradition that went back into the Middle Ages. OrthodoX icons of Bishop Nicholas of Myra have him with a red mitre and red vestments. The mitre went floppy by the time Santa Claus reached the New World and the vestments turned into a jolly coat and trousers.

  2. The critical link is Bari, where his relics were translated during a tense time in the Middle Ages. From Bari, his cult spread through Europe, including the Netherlands, with evangelical certainty.