So Christmas is over for another year, and as we head into 1995, only one question remains to haunt us:
Just what are frankincense and myrrh, anyway?
Here come “We Three Kings,” bearing gifts from afar. The first king brings gold; a fine present, indeed. But then the second king starts singing, “Frankincense to offer have I…” Frankincense? Isn’t he the guy who made the monster out of body parts?
Actually, Frankincense is the hardened resin of trees of the genus Boswellia, which grow in north-eastern Africa and Arabia. When a deep incision is made in the tree’s trunk, a milky juice oozes out and hardens into semi-transparent yellowish lumps that give off a strong fragrance when burned. The ancients used it for embalming and for medical and religious purposes, which made it very valuable–and therefore a rich gift, comparable to gold. Today, frankincense is still widely used in religious services, and also in fumigants and perfumes.
The next king sings, “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom…” This cheery phrase refers to another hardened resin, obtained from small, thorny trees of the genus Commiphora, also found in Arabia and Africa. The best myrrh comes from the species Commiphora abyssinica.
Myrrh has both a distinctive odour and a bitter, pungent taste. Like frankincense, it oozes from the cut bark of the tree as a liquid, which harden into small lumps known as “tears.” It ranges in colour from yellowish-brown to reddish-brown. Myrrh, too, was highly valuable in the ancient world; it was used in perfume and incense and also as an ointment and stimulant. The Egyptians used it in embalming, filling body cavities with powdered myrrh. Both its value and its production have greatly decreased in the modern world; it’s used in limited fashion as an antiseptic in mouthwashes and toothpastes, as well as in stomach remedies and as a salve for sore gums. Myrrhol, its essential oil, is used in some perfumes.
Holly and mistletoe also show up in a lot of Christmas songs, including “The Christmas Song” (catchy title, eh?), which includes the phrase, “Everybody knows some holly and some mistletoe help to make the season bright…”
Holly is the common name of a whole family of trees and shrubs (scientifically known as Aquifoliaceae), containing about 300 species. Christmas holly is usually either English holly, Ilex aquifolium, which has spiny evergreen leaves and bright-red fruit, or American holly, Ilex opaca, which is similar but has duller, less spiny leaves. English holly is a small tree, but American holly can grow as tall as 18 metres. These species became associated with Christmas because they thrive in cold climates; their berries ripen in October and remain through winter. So many halls were being decked with boughs of holly in the eastern U.S. that it’s now protected by law in several states.
Mistletoe is quite different; it’s a tree parasite that sometimes causes serious damage to its host. Although it contains chlorophyll and can therefore manufacture its own food, it has no roots, instead attaching itself to its host with sucker-like organs called haustoria, through which it draws out water and nutrients. It relies on birds to eat its berries and carry the seeds to other trees.
The type of mistletoe which we normally see recreated in plastic in our seasonal decorations is the European mistletoe, an evergreen plant (hence its use as a winter-time ornament) that grows primarily on apple and juniper trees. Again, however, there is an American version, which grows mostly on deciduous trees such as maples.
Mistletoe, sacred to the Druids, has long been credited with magical and medicinal powers. Although its berries are toxic, mistletoe was long thought to be an antidote for poisons. In Europe, it was used as a cure for sterility–which could be where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe originated. (Interestingly, Western American Indians believed just the opposite: they made a contraceptive tea out of mistletoe leaves.)
Not all of the science to be found in Christmas carols is plant-related. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” has always been one of my favourite songs; and as it happens, there’s a lot of science in bells.
Bells are solid vessels, usually metal although they can be made of other materials, that are struck by a hammer or an internal clapper. This causes the bell’s material to vibrate, producing sound. The tone of the bell depends on its proportions and shape, as well as the material of which it is made. (Most bells are made of a bronze alloy called bell metal, consisting of four parts copper to one part tin. Other metals simply don’t sound as good.) The sound we hear is a combination of many different tones, caused by the vibration of particular sections of the bell. The bigger the bell, the lower its pitch, because it vibrates more slowly when struck.
Many parts of Canada this year were left dreaming of a “White Christmas” along with Bing Crosby, thanks to unusually warm weather in mid-December. Why is snow white, when ice is transparent? How come we can’t see right through the snow to the ground?
Although an individual snowflake is indeed transparent, it’s not perfectly transparent, any more than glass is. Some light, especially light that strikes at an angle, is reflected instead of being allowed to pass through. Snow is white because it consists of millions of individual crystals, all of them reflecting sunlight in various directions. The occasional glint of colour is a prism effect ; some of the light passing through a snow crystal is refracted, or bent, and since the various wavelengths of light don’t all bend the same amount, they separate as they emerge. As a result, you might wee a blue, red or green flash.
I could go on…but I won’t, because Christmas is, alas, over for another year. At least now you can quit worrying about frankincense and myrrh, and turn your thoughts to that other burning question of our time:
Just what is “auld lang syne,” anyway?