I can remember being a child and seeing the beautiful Poinsettia flowers, the flower of Christmas, being used as decoration on front porches and at churches and shopping malls. They were easily as popular as Christmas trees, wreathes, mistletoe and holly, and were found in great abundance at this time of the year. I imagined that they must be from the North Pole, or some magical place in Europe that was covered in at least seven feet of snow.
Surprisingly, the poinsettia is a new addition to Christmas traditions here in the United States (it’s not even 200 years old yet!). It is a native of Mexico and Central America and the red “flowers” are actually leaves. It was brought to the United States in the 1820s by Joel Robert Poinsett, the first ambassador to Mexico. Legend tells us that while in Mexico, he was so impressed by the beautiful plant that he had some brought to this home in South Carolina, where it flourished in his greenhouse. Mr. Poinsett is more famous for this flower than he is for being the first ambassador to Mexico!
Montezuma, the great Aztec King, was very fond of the poinsettia, which was known as “Cuetlaxochitle” and he would have them brought in to his home (which is now Mexico City) because it was actually too cold where he lived to grow them (Poinsettias don’t like it when it gets below 50 degrees). The poinsettia, seen as a symbol of purity by the Aztecs, was used for healing and for making dyes.
In the Mayan folklore of South America it is said that the Poinsettias are actually Divine Beings.
There is one sweet story from Mexico of two children who went the nativity to bring gifts to the Christ child. The young girl was very sad that she had no gift to bring. But she was told that any humble gift given in love was all that Christ wanted. So she gathered together a little bundle of weeds and placed them before the Nativity, where they turned a beautiful red color. This little bundle became the first poinsettia plant, and was used in nativity scenes for decoration ever after.
So in fact the Poinsettia was not grown by Santa’s elves as some of us may have previously thought! It remains one of the most popular symbols of Christmas, here in the United States and Mexico, and as a symbol of purity, it continues to brighten hearts and spirits alike.