The Legend of the Poinsettia

Kevin Coolidge
Kevin is the creator of The Totally Ninja Raccoons and lives in Wellsboro Pennsylvania

Dec 13,2017

The Christmas tree, holly, mistletoe—each of these plants has a story intertwined with the Yuletide season. Each is an ancient tradition forever connected to Christmas, yet each plant and legend is European in origin. Only one Christmas plant tradition originates in the Americas, the poinsettia. What led this beautiful, tropic flower to its place in Christmas? The legend of the poinsettia begins in Mexico.

Many years ago, a young girl named Maria anxiously awaited the Christmas season. She lived in a small village and was very poor, but still looked forward to the festivities at the local church. It was a time of joy, and a time to honor the birth of Christ. The church would display a beautiful manger that would draw crowds from miles away, and people would bring expensive gifts and place them in the soft hay around the manger. This saddened Maria, for she had no money to buy a gift for the baby Jesus.

On Christmas Eve, Maria and her brother walked to church. She desperately wished for a gift to bring. A soft, glowing light shone from the darkness and an angel appeared. The children were afraid, but the angel comforted them, and instructed them to pick some of the weeds growing by the road. This would be their gift to the baby Jesus.

As the children placed the weeds by the manger, many of the villagers stared and laughed, and Maria was embarrassed. Suddenly, the dull, green leaves turned a beautiful shade of red and the church grew silent as they watched the green plants bloom into the brilliant crimson flowers we now call poinsettias. 

This lovely Mexican flower is known by many names in Mexico: flor de la Nochebuena (flower of the holy night), flor de fuego(fire flower), or the flor de Navidad(Christmas flower). A graceful retelling of this legend is told and beautifully illustrated by Tomie dePaola in The Legend of the Poinsettia.

Joel Robert Poinsett, the first United States ambassador to Mexico, introduced poinsettias to the United States in 1825. He was an amateur botanist, and had some plants sent to his home in Greenville, South Carolina. After growing them in his own greenhouse, he began to send them to fellow horticulturists. 

The poinsettia is an interesting plant. What appears to be the red flower petal is actually a petal-like leaf that turns red in response to the longer nights of November and December; the actual flower is the yellow star-like cluster at the center. This cluster is sometime said to represent the star of Bethlehem. Now, giving of the flower of the holy night has become a custom and a reminder that even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable…

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