First of all, the Magi would have given the Christ child many gifts, but the only ones that are mentioned are in the gospel of Matthew (2:11). Here it is stated the kings offered Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. All 3 gifts have a "real" value and a "prophetic" one. The giving of gifts would have been an Oriental custom. It is important to note that these gifts were the very best that could be given from the world during that period from the East. Persia at that time controlled the Silk Routes to India and China.
Gold is a metal with valuable properties. It is the most malleable/ductile metal known. 1 oz. of gold can be rolled into an ultra thin sheet over 200 inches on each side!! Gold is also almost impervious to acids and corrosion. It could be buried easily and still preserve it’s value, unless you forgot where you buried it. Gold was also difficult to fake. Gold was heavier than any other metal workable at the time. Ten pounds of lead would be roughly the same size as 17 pounds of gold. Other heavy metals like platinum and iridium were too hard and melted at too high a temperature.
It is obvious that gold would have been a beneficial due to the fact the Holy Family was poor. At the time it was a traditional gift to families at a birth to help with the financial burden of a new child. It also would be been a common gift to give a king.
As a gift Gold symbolized virtue. It signified His kingship on earth to all people, including people outside the Jewish community long before Paul’s direction. What is important to note, is that Jesus was not recognized as a "king" at that time by any other peoples other than the Magi. Consider that the area associated with the origin of the Magi is currently populous with the Muslim children of Abraham - one should wonder about the meaning for today. God placed his very unique birth announcement to draw these ancestors of Islam, to a very peaceful juncture of three Faiths; the three Faiths that worship Him as the God of Abraham.
Frankincense is an aromatic gum resin obtained from African through Asian trees of the genus BOSWELLIA. When the tree is cut; yellowish drops of sap ooze out. When the sap hardens it is pulled off the wood and will give a sweet scent when it is burned, or warmed. On a personal note, frankincense is one of the most heavenly scents you will ever smell. Quality frankincense is very light in color. Darker colors arise as the cuts age, the tree ages, and impurities meld with the sap. Lesser quality also arises from harvesting in the winter season.
Frankincense was used primarily as incense and perfume, soothing gifts for a new family. Burning Frankincense also helps keep away pests, also a useful around a newborn. Religiously then it was one of the elements used in holy anointing (Ex. 30:34), put with other materials during the cereal-offering (Lv.6:15) and was placed in a purified form on the showbread in the tabernacle (Lv 24:7).
When the Magi gave the frankincense to Jesus it symbolizes his priestly office. Frankincense would signify prayer.
Myrrh is an oleo gum that is obtained from species of Commiphora trees. The trees grow to about 9 feet and have thorny branches. Just like frankincense, myrrh is produced from the sap of the trees and collected in a similar fashion. Both saps have healing properties (botanical properties that keep these trees and ones like maples healthy through years of harvesting). The resin of Myrrh is more adhesive as it dries. Thus it seals off the wounds very well, but in collecting the resin bits of the wood are collected too. Which is not a problem as the wood is aromatic like other woods used for incense. One just doesn't cut down a producing tree normally. Myrrh resin has a bitter taste and it's named is derived from the Hebrew "murr" or "maror" which means bitter.
Myrrh was another ingredient of the holy anointing oil (Ex. 30:23-33). It was useful as a deodorant (should we market a Lady Myrrh roll-on?). Its superior preservative properties allowed myrrh to be used along with aloes and other scents/spices to anoint the dead.
It would have been symbolic of the embalming that Jesus would undergo after his death on the cross. Myrrh would signify suffering.
No one knows what became of the gifts of the Magi. But what is often overlooked, is the fact that the Magi presented these gifts and fell prostrate in front of the Christ child. Their arduous trip, their divinely inspired gifts, and HUMILITY, must not be forgotten. Their desire to see Jesus and worship him is a model for all Christians. We all must give God the very best we have to offer no matter how long and difficult the journey.