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Flowers of the Holy Night

      They are ubiquitous. They are everywhere. Some might even call them clichéd. Doesn’t matter. Nothing says Christmas like the poinsettia, especially here in San Antonio where the history and origins of the plant called Cuetlaxochitl is so deeply rooted in Mexico and in our shared cultures and traditions.

     First, the facts: poinsettias are native to Central America, particularly to the southern area of Mexico known as Taxco. They have a long history dating back to the 14th century, and were highly prized by the Aztecs for their healing powers and red and purple dyes. They were “discovered” and introduced to America in 1828 by a man named Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico under John Quincy Adams. A passionate botanist, Poinsett began shipping the plants back to his home in South Carolina where he studied and cultivated them and spread their popularity. From him the poinsettia got its name.

     The bright red “flower,” or what we think of as the flower, is actually not the flower at all. They are mutated leaves called “bracts.” The actual flower is those little yellow buds in the center. Poinsettias bloom in late fall and do so predominately in red, but also in pink and yellow (considered white). Hybrids of  Euphorbia pulcherrima ( Latin name) have been developed to create shaded, speckled and even compact curly varieties, some in unusual colors, but the traditional red is still the most common and the most popular. 

     Finally — and this may be the most important fact to remember at this time of year —the poinsettia is NOT poisonous. While no one suggests adding it as an edible flower to your holiday salad bowl, a tiny nibble by a pet or a quick taste attempt by a small child is not going to be fatal.  

     My house is full of  really, really red poinsettias this year. I think they are one of the newer commercial varieties called  “Beauty Red.” Their sturdy stems and shiny green leaves give them a stately, almost artificial look in their perfection, and they were only $5.99 at Lowe’s the week before Thanksgiving. I couldn’t help myself; I stocked up, intending to keep a couple for myself and to take the rest out to decorate for the holidays at my Mother’s and her assisted living residence.  

     The poinsettia’s identification with Christmas is founded both in Catholic tradition and Mexican folklore. Because the poinsettia is red, which is a color associated with religious rituals since ancient times, and because the plants bloom so vibrantly in December, Franciscan monks in Taxco started using them in their nativity processions in the 17th century. Even today, the poinsettia is sometimes referred to as the “Star of Bethlehem,” because the shape of its leaves symbolize the star that led the Wise Men. 

     From religious tradition emanated the legend of Pepita, a young girl who was traveling to a nativity scene at the church, but who did not have enough money to buy a fitting gift for the Baby Jesus. So she gathered a bunch of weeds along the way and fashioned a bouquet, encouraged by her cousin that even a modest offering would be welcomed. Upon presenting her gift to the Nativity, the bouquet turned into a beautiful cluster of red flowers. Because of this miracle, the poinsettia became known as “flowers of the holy night,” still today called Noche Buena colloquially in Spanish. 

     My Mother loved Christmas, above all other holidays and celebrations. Even when she worked in retail at J.C Penney’s during the holiday season, a most stressful time of year for employees, she loved Christmas and was thrilled by the excitement of the decorations and the good will. All those years when we lived up East and I would brave La Guardia Airport to pick her up in December weather, and during these last ten years when  I would drive down to Victoria to get her and bring her back to my house for the holidays, we would always say that Christmas could finally begin now that the “official elf’ had arrived. Even when our son was small, she was the big kid of Christmas.

       I wonder if Joel Poinsett realized back when he began sharing his red-flowered plants with friends and colleagues during the month of December that he was establishing an American holiday tradition? The plant’s reputation did, indeed, spread across the country. In the early 1900s, Paul Ecke developed the first poinsettias that could be grown indoors in pots and started selling them at roadside stands in Hollywood, CA. In 1923, he founded the Ecke Ranch in Encinitas which, while sold to a larger corporation in 2012 by his grandson, is still today responsible for roughly 75 percent of all the poinsettias sold in the US and 50 percent of the plants sold elsewhere through research and development and cuttings shipped to growers worldwide. (“Inside the Paul Ecke Poinsettia Ranch” by Lisa Hallett Taylor, 8/27/18) 

     My Mother died over Thanksgiving weekend, just in time to celebrate Christmas in heaven. We didn’t get to decorate for her this year, but we did end up having a Christmas funeral of sorts with poinsettias and with soft instrumental Christmas music playing in the background. Those who knew her appreciated the appropriateness. And my house, now decorated simply with all these poinsettias, is a study in “understated elegance,” given that I hadn’t the heart or the energy to go all out this year on holiday cheer.

The poinsettia is, by far, the best-selling potted plant in the Country; over 35 million of them are sold in the six weeks leading up to Christmas alone. Today’s heartier, stronger plants can continue to bloom from November to April if cared for and can even, with a little extra effort, be coaxed into blooming again. In July, 2002, Congress declared December 12th, the date of Joel Poinsett’s death in 1857, to be National Poinsettia Day. 

     Coincidentally, my Mother’s funeral was held on December 12th.  Or perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence at all; perhaps her service and my house full of poinsettias is her way of wishing us a blessed Christmas and assuring me that she, too, continues to bloom.

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