Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

2 12 2009

As a child, the days of December would bring with it the anticipation of Christmas. Christmas would mean smart new clothes, a frenzy of shopping, glorious food, and of course Christmas presents! Over the years, Christmas has become a celebration not just for Christians, but for almost everyone else in Singapore. We see Orchard Road and the Marina areas being transformed into a wonderland of lights and decorations. Crowds have started to throng the streets and shop tills are beginning to be busy. Christmas now is celebrated with much enthusiasm, aggressively promoted by the shops and restaurants. So much so that what Christmas means to most of us is very much how we saw it as children.

Christmas back when I was growing up, was a quieter affair amongst family and close friends. The highlight for me was the Christmas eve dinner with the extended family, usually followed by midnight mass. As a prelude to mass, the story of the birth of Christ would usually be played out … a story that has fascinated me since childhood, particularly the part relating to the Three Wise Men, following a star from the East bearing precious gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, to pay homage to the Christ child, I suppose that the concept of gift giving was derived from this.

Christmas Decorations from a Simpler Time - Robinson's at Raffles Place, 1966

The more elaborate decorations of Christmas today (Source: Frasers Centrepoint Malls)

As a child, I would wonder what Frankincense and Myrrh were that made them gifts fit for a king. The names alone brought with it a sense of mystic. I did not realise until much later that Frankincense and myrrh were both resins from shrubs that grew in the southern Arabian Peninsula, used in anointing oils, as incense or as burial spices, and perfume making, precious, as it was rare and much sought after back then. Somehow, I never got to see what they looked like unitl a recent visit to Dubai, where I wandered around the spice and gold souks (or markets). Interestingly I also discovered that trade in Frankincense and Myrrh is very much intertwined with that of the spice trade. It must have been the same back then.

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh as seen at the Gold and Spice Souks of Dubai

The walk I took through Spice Souk was particularly interesting. The colours of the herbs, spices and aromatics on display was certainly a sight to behold. As I wandered through the narrow alleys, venturing into some of the little shops lined with displays of spices, I was greeted not just by the Persian spice traders who manned the shops, but also by the rich aroma of herbs and spices that filled the air, the aromas bringing me back to the sundry shops and spice mills of old Tekka market in the Singapore of my childhood.

Colours of Spice Souk (From Top Left Clockwise): Saffron; Lavender; Garlic; Red Peppercorns; Nutmeg; Rosebud.

Display of Spices at Spice Souk

Dried Oregano Leaves

Herbs and spices were very much a part of Christmas when I was growing up as well – I remember the smell of cinnamon and cloves as I helped my mother stir the pot of ingredients, over the stove, that went into the glorious dark fruit cakes she baked for Christmas. Just the thought of her fruit cakes and the delicious food she prepared for Christmas makes my mouth water! My favourite dish was the Ayam Buah Keluak which she often prepared for Christmas and other special occasions … the thick curry gravy, a cacophony of spices, thickened and coloured black by the black paste that the Buah Keluak, seeds with a nut like appearance with a hard black shell, are filled with. While the fillings of the Buah Keluak we get in the Peranakan restaurants in Singapore are usually prepared with a mixture of meat and the black paste, my mother would prepare hers with just the pure black paste, mixed with a little sugar to reduce the slight bitter taste of the Buah Keluak.


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