Photo: Scott Bauer, USDA
The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherimma) is pretty much the floral symbol of Christmas throughout the Northern Hemisphere these days, but it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, until the 1960s, the poinsettia was pretty much unknown to the gardening public.
But it was once a powerful symbol of purity among the Aztecs of Mexico, where the plant grew wild, symbolizing the blood of warriors who had died in battle, and was used in human sacrifices, also medicinally and as a dye plant. They called the plant Cuetlaxochitl, “the flower of leather petals.”
The last emperor of the Aztecs, Montezuma, had caravans of poinsettia stems brought to his capital, Teotihuacan, in the mountains not far from today’s Mexico City, where the plant could not grow because of the colder winters.
Not Always Appreciated
When Catholic priests arrived with the conquistadors and set about converting the peoples of Mexico to Christianity in the early 16th century, they at first took a very dim view of this “heathen” plant, redolent of symbolism from the old religion, and tried to banish its culture. However, by the end of the next century, a legend about the poinsettia had been born that was very much in line with their goals and by the 17th century, Franciscan friars began including the plants in their Christmas celebrations. Today, the poinsettia is as much a symbol of Christmas in Mexico as the Christmas tree is elsewhere.
Here’s the legend:
Pepita and the Poinsettia
Pepita was a young Indian girl from a small village. Her parents were poor farmers barely able to feed their family. When, as Christmas approached, her parents became ill, it was up to Pepita, the oldest child, to take care of her little brother and sister and to tend to the fields.
In the village, a manger was set up in the church for the Christmas celebrations and everyone was expected to bring a special gift to lay before the baby Jesus on Christmas Eve during a special procession with singing and lighted candles.
Pepita struggled to create an appropriate gift. She tried to weave a colorful blanket for the baby as she had seen her mother doing, but she was too inexperienced and the yarns became entangled. Her attempt to sew little leather boots for the baby likewise failed as she wasn’t strong enough to push the needle through the leather.
So, as the Christmas Eve procession began, poor Pepita watched from a distance, crying, having nothing she could bring.
Suddenly, a strange man appeared in front of her.
“Pepita,” he said, “I have a message for you. Your parents will get well soon. You must take your little brother and sister to the church to celebrate with the other villagers.”
But that only made Pepita cry even harder.
“Why are you crying, little girl?” asked the man gently.
“I’m sad because I have nothing to give the baby Jesus,” she replied.
“Don’t worry about that, child. Whatever you give, the baby Jesus will love, because it will be a gift from the heart.” And with that he opened his cloak, revealing hidden wings, and flew off into the sky.
Pepita, stunned by the encounter, looked about her for anything she could bring. All she could see were some weedy green shrubs, so she harvested an armful of branches, gathered her brother and sister, and descended to the church.
As she came into the building, where candles were blazing and the people singing, the villagers were shocked. “What in the world is she thinking, bringing the baby Jesus an armful of weeds!” they muttered
But Pepita continued and as she did, a hush suddenly fell over the church. Then people began to whisper and then cry out. “It’s a miracle!” they exclaimed.
Pepita then looked down. Each weed in her arms was now topped with a brilliant red flower.
But it was more than that. When the people left the church after the mass, the hills were ablaze with color. All the tall green weeds around the village were covered with red. Pepita’s simple gift had been the grandest of them all.
And when she got home, she found her parents had risen from their sick bed and were now fully healed. She realized the man had been angel.
Since then, every year in the weeks before Christmas, the hills of Mexico become a blaze of fiery red, symbolizing the blood of Christ. The star-shaped bracts of the shrub we now call the poinsettia are said to symbolize the star of Bethlehem and are now called, throughout Mexico, flor de la Noche Buena: the Christmas flower.
Merry Christmas, one and all!
Illustrations by Fabian Negrin from the book The Miracle of the First Poinsettia:
A Mexican Christmas Story by Joanna Oppenheim