How often do you drive down a road and notice the plants and weeds growing along its edge? You might see them if they are shockingly beautiful, but otherwise – not so much. Would you ever think a Mexican roadside weed could become a symbol of Christmas, or be linked to Christianity?
Poinsettia, a name meaning “very beautiful,” grows as a weed in Mexico and Central America. They grow wild in a tall, stringy form, and the red flowers are actually not flowers. Similar to our Bougainvillea in the United States, its upper leaves turn red, and the tiny flowers grow in the middle of the bracts. Cultivated in a variety of colors now, an Aztec king once prized it. So, how did it become a favorite Christmas plant?
The Aztecs used to pull these weeds to make purple dye for clothes and cosmetics. They made the white sap in the stem into medicine to treat fevers. In 1825, Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first ambassador from the USA to Mexico, owned greenhouses on plantations in South Carolina. He began growing these plants and sent them to friends and botanical gardens.
Joel’s friend, Robert Buist of Philadelphia, fell in love with the plants when he received one. He began selling them as cut flowers, using the name of Poinsettias. By the early 1900s in America, they sold whole plants for landscaping and pot plants nationwide.
Albert Ecke, a German immigrant, increased the availability of poinsettias in America when he sent cuttings by air instead of fully grown plants by rail. By this time, the Ecke family had a profuse inventory of single-stem plants. His grandson, Paul Ecke, Jr., was strong in marketing, and he developed a brilliant idea for the poinsettias. Why not send them to early television shows so they can be a backdrop during the holidays?
So, they shipped thousands of plants to the Dinah Shore, Bob Hope, and The Tonight Show programs. The public went crazy over the burst of color on the Christmas shows, and their popularity was born. Throughout most of the 20th century, the Ecke family crop accounted for over ninety percent of all poinsettias sold in the United States. The US Congress even deemed December 12 as National Poinsettia Day to commemorate the date of Poinsett’s death.
As Christianity quickly spread across the Americas, Mexicans became the first people to celebrate the holiday flower’s Christian meaning. They saw its red leaves as a symbol of deep love and the blood of Jesus at His crucifixion. Today, the poinsettia, with its star-shaped foliage pattern, is used consistently in churches at Christmastime, for it is thought it resembles the Star of Bethlehem.
I’m ending today’s blog with the Legend of the Poinsettia for your reading enjoyment. Be sure to join us again on Sunday, November 24, for the next “Everything Christmas Blog.” God bless!
The Legend of the Poinsettia
Pepita, a poor Mexican girl, had no gift to present the Christ Child at Christmas Eve Services. As Pepita walked slowly to the chapel with her cousin Pedro, her heart was filled with sadness rather than joy.
“I am sure, Pepita, that even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eye,” said Pedro.
Not knowing what else to do, Pepita knelt by the roadside and gathered a handful of common weeds, fashioning them into a small bouquet. Looking at the scraggly bunch of weeds, she felt more saddened and embarrassed than ever by the humbleness of her offering. She fought back a tear as she entered the small village chapel.
As she approached the alter, she remembered Pedro’s kind words: “Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes.” She felt her spirit lift as she knelt to lay the bouquet at the foot of the nativity scene.
Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into blooms of brilliant red, and all who saw them were certain they witnessed a Christmas miracle right before their eyes.
From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, for they bloomed each year during the Christmas season.
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