By Michelle da Silva Richmond
Long before the poinsettia became a traditional symbol of the Christmas season in Mexico, the Aztecs cultivated the red and green plant, which they called cuetlaxochitl, meaning "mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure" in their native Nahuatl.
Poinsettias were a favorite of both kings Moctezuma and Netzahualcoyotl for many reasons -- not the least of which was because the red flowers represented blood sacrifices so favored by the Aztecs. On a practical note, the flowers were used to make valuable red dye and were thought to have medicinal powers such as stimulating circulation, healing skin infections and curing high fevers.
In the 17th century, Franciscan priests living near Taxco noticed that the scarlet flowers bloomed during Christmas time and resembled the star of Bethlehem. They began using them to decorate churches and altars during the Fiesta de Santo Pesebre (Celebration of the Holy Manger).
There are many legends in Mexico about how Poinsettias and Christmas come together.
According to one, people flocked to church long ago on Christmas Eve with bundles of flowers to fill the Christ child's manger. One of them -- a little boy named José -- was very upset because he was too poor to buy any flowers.
According to the story, an angel appeared to him and told him to pick some weeds from a nearby field. José did as instructed, but when he put the weeds in the manger they were transformed into beautiful scarlet flowers, which Mexicans to this day call Flor de la Noche Buena (Flower of Christmas Eve), or simply Nochebuenas.
Another legend tells the story of a poor child named Pepita who had no present to give the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve services. On her walk to the chapel her cousin Pedro tried to cheer her up, telling her that, "Even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves him will make Jesus Happy."
Pepita didn't know what she could give, so she picked a small handful of weeds from the roadside and made them into a small bouquet. She felt embarrassed because she could only give this small present to Jesus. As she walked through the chapel to the altar, she remembered what Pedro had said and she began to feel better. As she knelt down and placed the weeds near the nativity scene, the scraggly weeds burst into bright red flowers. Everyone proclaimed this a "miracle" and from that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena (Flowers of the Holy Night).
The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are sometimes thought to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, which led the Wise Men to Jesus, while the red colored leaves symbolize the blood of Christ and the white leaves represent his purity.
More recently, when Joel Robert Poinsett, the first ambassador to Mexico (1825 - 1829) saw the fiery flower he was so taken with it that he sent several to his home state of South Carolina so that they could be raised in his greenhouse. Initially dubbed the "Mexican Fire Plant," it was later officially named the poinsettia in honor of its "discoverer," who died on Dec. 12, 1851. In the U.S., December 12 has been designated "National Poinsettia Day" in his honor.
By the early 20th century, the poinsettia was already popular throughout the US and was being sold as potted plants. The rest, as they say...is history.
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