red poinsettia flower with ornamental white spots
Poinsettia Christmas story and history

If you live in the west then you are likely to be familiar with the Christmas story and the traditions that go along with it. In fact Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a sixpence in your pudding, a foot full of pine needles and more mince pies than you can shake a festive stick at.

It’s a matter of fact that all of these traditions have been passed down from generation to generation for centuries, or have they? While it's true that many go back to at least 150 years, without the timely publication of Dickens famous book ‘A Christmas Carol’ the Christmas holiday was not just drifting into obscurity, it was on its way to extinction!

Fortunately, the Christmas holiday has never been healthier, although it has come a long way away from its nativity origins. But the strange thing about these traditions is how they are constantly being changed and modernised, seemingly without anyone noticing. Look at our biggest Christmas icon, Father Christmas. Surely no-one would dare to change that?

Poinsettia Christmas story and history
They already have! In fact Santa owes his whole ‘Red’ look to a seasonal re-branding in 1931 by Coca Cola’s advertising agency. Prior to this he had always worn green as a sign of the returning spring.

It is a similar situation with our Christmas plants, from the last week of November the shops will be filled with holly wreaths, Xmas trees, mistletoe and poinsettias. Believe it or not, the poinsettia has been part of the English festive tradition for no more than twenty years.

As a cultivated plant native to Mexico, the history of the poinsettia goes back to the times of Montezuma. In those days the Aztecs knew it as ‘Cuetlaxochitl’ and was highly regarded as a economic crop. During the 14th - 16th century the sap was collected and used to control fevers, while the bracts (modified leaves) were used to make a reddish dye. Found growing naturally in the lowlands, the Aztec kings brought huge numbers of poinsettias required for their cloth-making industry up into what is now known as Mexico City for processing.

The poinsettias relationship with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico as explained by this charming story about a poor Mexican girl called Pepita. As was the tradition, each child from the village would present a gift to the Christ Child at the Christmas Eve Services. Unfortunately, Pepita was so poor that she had nothing to her name other than the clothes on her back and so a gift wasn't something she could give. On the way to the chapel she was accompanied by her cousin Pedro, but her heart became filled with sadness rather than joy. Seeing her sadness, her cousin tried to comfort her.

"I am sure Pepita," he said softly, "That even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes,"

Not knowing what else to do, although some say she was inspired by an angel, Pepita knelt down by the roadside and gathered a handful of common weeds. On her way to the chapel she busied herself by fashioned them into a small bouquet. Looking at the scraggly bunch of weeds, she became sadder and even embarrassed by the humbleness of her offering. She began to cry as she entered the doors to the small village chapel. As she approached the altar, she remembered Pedro's kind words.

"Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes." Inexplicably, she felt her spirits lift as she knelt down to lay the bouquet at the foot of the nativity scene, and as she lay them down the bouquet of weeds burst into blooms of brilliant red. All those who witnessed the event believed that they had seen a Christmas miracle. And from that day forward, these bright red flowers were re-named as the Flores de Noche Buena, or the Christmas Eve flower. To us, they are known as the Poinsettia.

Traditions aside, poinsettias always make a fantastic addition to the Christmas table. However, there are a number of things that you must be aware of before you buy one.

For related articles click onto the following links:
RHS Poinsettia
How to Care for Poinsettias
THE CHRISTMAS ROSE - Helleborus niger

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