The meaning of myrrh

17th November 2000 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh, author of our Christmas project and poster, looks at the meaning behind some of the more unusual words and phrases we hear at this time of year

Do you know what myrrh is? Or why we sing of swathing bands? Many of the phrases and words that we say, hear and sing at Christmas are hardly used at any other time of the year. It's easy to assume that children - and indeed adults - always know what they mean. Sometimes, though, a little explanation is necessary. You can use these words informally, or perhaps use them in a seasonal literacy hour.

Angels Many Christians believe that there are wonderful beings who serve God in Heaven called angels. They appear on many occasions throughout the Old and New Testaments. It is the archangel Gabriel, an angel of high rank, who tells Mary she will be the mother of the Son of God. Later, angels tell the shepherds to go and worship the new-born king.

Bethlehem The Bible tells us that the Romans were carrying out a census of the population and they insisted everyone should go to the town where they were born. Wives had to accompany their husbands, so Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, about 110km, because it was Joseph's birthplace. While they were there, Jesus was born.

Boxing Day The day (strictly the first weekday) after Christmas was so called because churches opened their poor boxes and the money and gifts inside were distributed to the needy of the parish. The name is also associated with the custom of giving tradesmen gifts (or money) in Christmas boxes.

Christmas Eve The day and night before Christmas Day. In some European countries, Christmas Eve is when the main Christmas meal is eaten and presents are distributed from under the tree.

Gold, frankincense and myrrh These were the special gifts of the three kings, or wise men, who visited the newborn Jesus. Gold indicated Jesus would be a king and frankincense that he would be a priest (incense is still burned in many churches to create a sweet smell). Myrrh is an ointment used to prepare bodies for burial and, as such, indicated that Jesus was a man, and would die.


Herod the Great was the king of Judea, the country where Jesus was born. In the Bible we read that Herod was jealous when told of the arrival of a new king, and ordred all boys under the age of two to be killed. Joseph and Mary fled with the baby Jesus into the neighbouring country, Egypt.


Christians were always unhappy about mistletoe, a pre-Christian, pagan symbol, so holly was adopted as an alternative. The red berries of the holly stand for the blood of Jesus, the spiky leaves stand for his crown of thorns.


In a stable, cattle would eat their food from a wooden manger. The Christmas story tells us that the newborn Jesus was laid in a manger in a stable as there was no room at the inn and hence no crib for a bed.

Mistletoe A parasitic plant that grows on apple and other trees, it is associated with love and healing. It's said that any girl caught under the mistletoe by a boy has to accept a kiss.


Traditionally, Santa's sleigh is pulled by the reindeer that were used to pull sledges in northern Europe. "Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer" is said to have been invented in the 1930s for an advertising campaign for a US department store chain.

Santa ClausFather Christmas

Many countries have their own version of Father Christmas - in some countries it's Saint Nicholas, an early Christian bishop who had a special calling to distribute gifts to poor children. St Nicholas's day is December The name "Santa Claus" is derived from Saint Nicholas.

Swathing bands

In "While Shepherds Watched" we sing "All meanly wrapped in swathing bands". Meanly means that the infant Jesus was clothed like an ordinary child. The swathing or swaddling bands were narrow bandages that babies used to be wrapped in. It was thought that babies should be wrapped up very tightly - now we think they should be free to move their arms and legs.


The idea of eating turkey at Christmas is recent, probably introduced from the United States, where turkey is traditionally eaten at Thanksgiving in November. In this country the traditional Christmas bird was a goose.


A word used to describe a festive occasion where lots of drinking would take place. It also means "Good luck" or "Good cheer" - the kind of thing you'd say if you were having a drink with your friends. People also toasted one another's health while drinking from a wassail-bowl or cup on Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night.

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