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The Poinsettia – A Christmas Tradition from Mexico

History of the Poinsettia
Euphorbia pulcherrima is a shrub or small tree, typically reaching a height of 2–13 ft. The plant bears dark green dentate leaves that measure 2.8–6.3 inches in length. The colored bracts—which are most often flaming red but can be orange, pale green, cream, pink, white, or marbled—are often mistaken for flower petals because of their groupings and colors, but are actually leaves. The colors of the bracts are created through photoperiodism, meaning that they require darkness (12 hours at a time for at least five days in a row) to change color. At the same time, the plants require abundant light during the day for the brightest color.

The Aztecs called poinsettias “cuetlaxochitl.” During the 14th-16th century, the white sticky sap was used to control fevers and the bracts (modified leaves) were used to make a reddish dye. 

History of poinsettias

Montezuma, the last of the Aztec kings, would have poinsettias brought into what now is Mexico City by caravan because they could not be grown in the high altitude. 

Centuries later, Joel Roberts Poinsett became the first United States Ambassador to Mexico – appointed by President Andrew Jackson in the 1820’s. Because of Poinsett’s interest in botany, he introduced the American elm into Mexico. 

During his stay in Mexico, he wandered the countryside looking for new plant species to bring back with him to the United States. In 1828 he found a beautiful shrub with large red flowers growing next to a road. He took cuttings from the plant and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. 

Even though Poinsett had a distinguished career as a US Congressman and Ambassador, he will always be best remembered for introducing the poinsettia into the United States. 

The Legend of the Poinsettia
In Mexico, it is tradition to bring the Christ Child a gift at the Christmas Eve service. A young girl named Pepita, who came from a very humble, but poor family was walking to the chapel on Christmas Eve, with her cousin Pedro. Her heart was not filled with joy as in past years because she had no gift to bring her Lord.

Her cousin told her that he was sure that “any gift given in love would be acceptable in His eyes.”

Not wanting to arrive at the chapel empty-handed, Pepita knelt by the roadside and gathered a handful of what looked like scraggly weeds, fashioning them into a bouquet. But as they approached the chapel, Pepita became more embarrassed and saddened by her humble gift.

But as she approached the altar, she remembered what Pedro has told her. Her spirit lifted as she laid her bouquet at the foot of the nativity scene.

Suddenly, her bouquet of weeds burst into blooms of brilliant red, and all who witnessed this in the chapel that Christmas Eve were certain that they had witnessed a Christmas miracle right before their very eyes!

From that day on, these bright red flowers are known as the “Flores de Noche Buena”, or “Flowers of the Holy Night”, as they bloom each year during the Christmas season.
 

Contributed by Cindie Reilly, MLHMGT Board member

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