The Many Uses of Frankincense and Myrrh

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.’ About 15 years ago, a colleague at Cambridge was returning from a visit to Yemen. The British customs officers asked him what he had bought, and he declared that his luggage contained frankincense and myrrh. ‘And gold as well, I suppose!’ came the ironic reply, and he was let through without further ado. Later, he gave me a brown paper bag filled with nuggets of myrrh, which I used to hand round at my lectures when talking about the history of the trade in perfumes and spices, inviting my audience to chew a piece of myrrh.

It may have done them some good. The label of an upmarket toothpaste will often reveal that it contains myrrh. Its medical benefits are said to extend to leprosy (suiting its biblical background), and it may kill off all sorts of bacteria and viruses, though whether it is widely used in the White House has not been revealed. But it has always been used mainly for its smell. Myrrh retains its perfume longer than any other aromatic. Both frankincense and myrrh are gum-resins that contain volatile oils. Three thousand years ago, their cultivation spread over large tracts of Eritrea and south Arabia, which were then wetter and more fertile than nowadays. One can wait for the trees to exude a sticky liquid, and collect that; or (if in a hurry) one can make incisions in the bark out of which oil will seep.

Frankincense and myrrh were the prestige products of the earliest trade routes to navigate down the Red Sea. The Pharaohs burned masses of myrrh before the Egyptian gods when they returned in triumph from war. Plenty of myrrh was used for embalming the dead, which might explain the acute interest of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut in sending a fleet of magnificent ships to acquire it along with lions, giraffes, ivory and other exotica a few years before she died in 1458 BC.

In the time of Jesus, the incense used in the Jewish Temple was very carefully mixed from a great variety of ingredients, beaten fine: 11 spices, including frankincense, myrrh, saffron, cinnamon and Cyprus wine. This was the time when Petra flourished; South Arabian incense traveled overland via Petra in the camel caravans of Nabatean myrrh traders. During the Middle Ages, massive cargoes of frankincense and myrrh were loaded on ships and taken all the way across the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea to the imperial court in China.

Modern myrrh may not be appreciated quite so much in Heaven. I bought a packet of incense cones made out of the two resins in England this summer — 15 cones for one pound. The packet promises me ‘spiritual enlightenment’ when I burn a cone, which I am doing as I write. Has that ever worked? An ancient Israelite altar, recently discovered in the Negev Desert, shows that its priests burned frankincense on one altar and cannabis on another. Maybe that altar kept them happy, but I don’t think frankincense or myrrh induced any trances.

David Abulafia

Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus

In 1897, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, a coroner’s assistant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was asked a question by his then eight-year-old daughter, Virginia, which many a parent has been asked before: whether Santa Claus really exists. O’Hanlon deferred. He suggested Virginia wrote asking the question to one of New York’s most prominent newspapers at the time, The Sun, assuring her that “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”

Dear Editor: I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

The response to Virginia’s letter by one of the paper’s editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, remains the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any newspaper in the English language and found itself the subject of books, a film and television series. In his response Church goes beyond a simple “yes of course” to explore the philosophical issues behind Virginia’s request to tell her “the truth” and in the process lampoon a certain skepticism which he had found rife in American society since the suffering of the Civil War. His message in short – there is a reality beyond the visible.

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Your Christmas Present: Our Political Leaders are Killing off New York City

It’s the week before Christmas, traditionally the best week of the year to be in New York City. This is the week when tourists by the thousands flock to town, hundreds of restaurants are full and festive, the theater does peak business, the symphony and opera and ballet put on their most popular shows, concert venues are fully booked, hotel rooms are impossible to find, stores are packed, and beautiful Christmas lights are everywhere.

Not this year. Don’t even think about coming here right now. Almost all of the best things are closed, by order of our political masters. The term “ghost town” is a fair description. Here’s a small roundup:

  • Restaurants. After a few months of graciously allowing restaurants to have outdoor dining plus indoor at 25% capacity, last week — just as fall was about to turn into full winter — Governor Cuomo ordered all restaurants in New York City completely closed for indoor dining until further notice. That’s right, all indoor dining at restaurants is closed in New York City. Outdoor? This is December! For most of the last week, the temperature has been well below 32F (0C); today it finally got back to a little above 40F (5C). In my neighborhood, normally the best restaurant area of the City, nearly all of the restaurants have given up. A handful have built elaborate “outdoor” structures where a few hardy patrons in parkas huddle beneath highly inadequate heat lamps. The evidence that indoor dining at restaurants is a significant source of spread of the coronavirus is non-existent.
  • Broadway theater. All of it is completely closed. Through May 2021!
  • Symphony, opera, ballet, Lincoln Center. Closed, closed and more closed. Lincoln Center is bravely talking about restarting shows some time in “Spring 2021,” but they don’t give any specific date. Carnegie Hall’s most recent proposed reopening date is April 5, 2021. Watch for that to get pushed back again, and then yet again.
  • Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. Yes, it is there. You can even go to see it in person — provided that you are willing to put up with advance registration, a scheduled time, mask-wearing, social distancing, a five-minute time limit for viewing, etc., etc., etc. Or you can just watch their virtual live cam, safely from your home in Peoria — which is what they strongly recommend. After all, you wouldn’t want to get too near an actual live human being this year.
  • Concerts. Everything is canceled as far as I can find, mostly without any announced rescheduling dates at all. Madison Square Garden, which also runs Radio City Music Hall and the Beacon Theater, says “We are working diligently to reschedule as many of these events as possible for dates in the future.” When in the future? No word.
  • Hotels. I can’t find statistics for the most recent weeks, but according to this report from October, some 200 of New York’s 700 hotels have closed entirely, and the remainder had overall occupancy rates of well under 40%. I’m surprised that it is that high. Typical for this time of year would be 90% or higher. The good news is that prices have plummeted.
  • Streets. The usual festive throngs are nowhere to be seen. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places, but I don’t think so.
  • Subways. Still running! And at close to full schedule, if you can believe that. However, the authorities have done their best to scare away as many riders as possible, leaving the trains almost empty even at peak hours. On my line, trains that used to run irregularly, due to the difficulties of dealing with the crush of customers, now come every four minutes like clockwork. Word is that the MTA is about to get several billion in new “stimulus” funds from the latest Congressional bill, to keep the empty trains going. Thanks, flyover people! Here is a picture of the subway car I came home in this evening — with one other lonely passenger down at the other end. In normal times, this would be standing room only.

Meanwhile our politicians proceed as if the infinite gusher of money will flow forever to fund the progressive program of perfecting the world. Allison Schrager in the City Journal has a collection of new and onerous labor regulation measures going into effect even as other government orders stemming from the virus are already crippling small businesses. Schrager calls her list “Another Stake in the Heart of New York’s Small Businesses.”

[D]on’t underestimate the capacity [of New York’s politicians] to make a bad situation much worse. The same week that Mayor Bill de Blasio threatened to shut down New York City for business [because of the virus], Albany increased the minimum wage across the rest of the state (New York City’s minimum wage is already $15 an hour), City Hall made it harder to fire fast-food workers, and the New York appellate division upheld a decision that Uber drivers could not be hired as contractors—they must get all the benefits of regular employees.

Up in the state legislature, the Democrats have just increased their majority in the state Senate. All the buzz is about a new “millionaire’s tax” of several additional percent for those with annual income exceeding $1 million. And in New York City, Mayor de Blasio on December 18 held a news conference where he blurted out these words:

“I’d like to say very bluntly our mission is to redistribute wealth,” the mayor said. “A lot of people bristle at that phrase. That is, in fact, the phrase we need to use.”

The purpose of the “redistribution of wealth” is supposedly to fix the City’s schools. Those schools currently spend about $28,000 per year per student on K-12 education, which is well more than double the national average. As usual, de Blasio takes no responsibility for the failure of New York City schools to achieve even near-average results for almost triple the cost elsewhere in the country, and just demands more and more and yet more money.

They are doing their very best to kill off our city.

Francis Menton, Manhattan Contrarian

The Yahoos Who Stole Christmas

Christmas in California has effectively been cancelled by Emperor Gavin Newsom.

And now it looks like here in L.A. we’re going to be locked in our basements by the local yahoos in charge until February.

But the continuing destruction of normal social and economic life in California in the name of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic is old news.

Instead, let’s talk about the yahoos in Washington who are continuing to screw up the whole country.

The federal yahoos, it’s no surprise, are the slippery politicians in Congress.

Mostly Democrats but also some Republicans, for a decade they haven’t had the decency or courage to pass an annual appropriations bill to pay for the bloated and wasteful federal government they’ve built.

By midnight Friday these yahoos have to pass another one of their short-term continuing resolutions to avoid a government shutdown.

It’ll be nothing special. For fiscal year 2021 – which began Oct. 1 – continuing resolutions have already been needed twice.

Last week Congress passed a continuing resolution that lasted only a week. If they sign a third “CR” Friday at midnight, it’ll probably last as little as two days.

It’s all pretty embarrassing, but continuing resolutions and midnight voting deadlines are how the annual federal budgeting process works these days in the world’s richest nation.

The process should be for Congress to pass 12 specific spending bills to pay for government things like transportation, the military, etc., by Sept. 30 every fiscal year.

But for ten years our public servants in Congress have not been able to get their act together to pass the 12 appropriations bills.

Instead, what they’ve done is combine several of the spending bills into gigantic omnibus bills that are packed with all kinds of goodies to reward donors and special interests or to fund federally funded local boondoggles that otherwise would never have the votes to pass.

It’s been a sweet racket for these yahoos.

They’ve found out that if they don’t pass the omnibus bills by Sept. 30 like they’re supposed to they can use a continuing resolution and the threat of a government shutdown to scare the public and get their crappy stuff passed unnoticed in huge spending bills.

The sad thing is these yahoos have been playing this dirty game in Washington for a long time, but no one ever holds them accountable and the media never tell the story.

Both parties do it. Both are to blame. It’s mostly Democrats who engage it, but it’s Republicans that don’t say anything. They all play along.

The same yahoos in Washington who’ll be passing the latest continuing resolution late Friday night are also at this moment dragging out the passage of a COVID-19 stimulus bill to the last possible minute.

It looks like they’ll be wheeling and dealing through the weekend to pass the much needed $900 billion bill.

The COVID-19 stimulus bill would have been passed several months ago but the Democrats and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used it as a political weapon.

They didn’t want Donald Trump’s re-election campaign to benefit from a second stimulus package.

Plus, imitating the way they operate on annual appropriations bills, they took advantage of a national crisis and tried to load up the stimulus bill with hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of presents for their pet special interests and to bail out badly run Democrat cities and bankrupt states like Illinois.

No American should shed a tear for any member of Congress this weekend, even if they have to work 24/7 on the stimulus bill and eat vending machine food from now until New Year’s.

They haven’t missed a paycheck all year. They’re going to make sure they have a merry Christmas. But they’ve basically said “Bah humbug” to the rest of us.

Michael Reagan