The History & Legends

The popular Christmas flower know in this country as the poinsettia was first called a cuetlaxochitl by the Aztecs. It represented purity, and its name signified "Flower that withers, mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure". The cuetlaxochitl was cultivated as an exotic gift from nature and admired but never touched. Its bright red color had been given by the gods as a reminder of the periodic sacrificial offerings in accordance with the creation of the Fifth Sue. The intense red represented chalchimatl, the precious liquid of the sacrifices offered to the gods. 

Beautiful botanical gardens existed throughout the Aztec empire in pre-Hispanic times. Flowers and herbal plants were cultivated for their beauty and medicinal purposes. From October to mid-May, the cuetlaxochitl was admired and observed as it flowered like "birds aflame". Circa 1440-1446, the great Aztec leader Tlacalel and his half-brother Montezuma Ilhuicamina visited the most beautiful of these gardens in Oaxatcpec, in what is now the Mexican state of Morelos, and revitalized the cultivation of the cuetlaxochitl there as a reminder of the importance of the blood sacrifices. 

One legend from sixteenth-century Mexico explains the flower's origin. Franciscan friars evangelizing the area of Taxco celebrated one Christmas with a lavishly decorated nativity scene. The rosary and a litany were prayed, a pinata was broken, gifts were exchanged, and a mass was held, during which a miracle occurred: the flower decorating the nativity scene turned red. After that night, the flower was named flor de nochbuena, Flower of the Blessed Night. 

Many other legends sprang forth, including the following:

A charming story is told of Pepita, a poor Mexican girl who had no gift to present the Christ Child at Christmas Eve Services. As Pepita walked slowly to the chapel with her cousin Pedro, her heart was filled with sadness rather than joy. 
"I am sure, Pepita, that even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes," said Pedro consolingly.

Not knowing what else to do, Pepita knelt by the roadside and gathered a handful of common weeds, fashioning them into a small bouquet. Looking at the scraggly bunch of weeds, she felt more saddened and embarrassed than ever by the humbleness of her offering. She fought back a tear as she entered the small village chapel.

As she approached the alter, she remembered Pedro's kind words: "Even the most humble gift, if given in love, will be acceptable in His eyes." She felt her spirit lift as she knelt to lay the bouquet at the foot of the nativity scene.

Suddenly, the bouquet of weeds burst into blooms of brilliant red, and all who saw them were certain that they had witnessed a Christmas miracle right before their eyes.

From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, for they bloomed each year during the Christmas season.

Another version of this story is:
Also known by its beautiful Spanish name of flor de nochebuena, or "flower of Christmas Eve," the poinsettia is indigenous to Central America and tropical Mexico. The story goes that a poor Mexican child on her way to church on Christmas Eve wept because she had no gift to place before the altar of the Virgin and Child. Through her tears, an angel suddenly appeared and instructed her to gather weeds from the roadside. When the child arrived at the altar with her wilted offering, starry crimson "blossoms" burst forth from every stem. 

During the following centuries, the flor de nochebuena, or cuetlaxochitl, became a symbol of Christmas and of Mexico's evangelization, and the flower's bloom in October signaled the coming of Christmas. 

The flower spread throughout the Mexican states. In Chiapas it is known as Sijoyo, in Durango as Catalina, in Guerrero, Michoscan, Veracruz, and Hidalgo it is known as Flor de Pascua, and in Oaxaca as Flor de Santa Catarina. 

Chile and Peru called it the "Crown of the Andes," and in Argentina it became the Federal Star because it served as a symbol for the republicans in their liberation struggle. Today it is their flor national. 

In the United States, the flower has another history and another name, but its origin is still Mexican. It all began when Joel Robert Poinsett was appointed as ambassador to Mexico. On Christmas day 1825, Ambassador Poinsett visited the Taxco church in Santa Prisca, where the Franciscans had adorned the nativity scene with exotic red flowers that gave it a very elegant and uncommon appearance. 

Enamored of the flowers named Nochebuena, he shipped some to his friends back home in Charleston, South Carolina. This was the origin of naming these flower poinsettias in this century. 

Ambassador Joel Poinsett was a multi-talented man. He studied medicine in England and was an amateur architect who built a state road, a bridge with a Gothic arch, and a church in South Carolina. He was a congressman and an unofficial U.S. ambassador to South America and Europe. Early in Poinsett's career, prior to his Mexican ambassadorship, president Martin Van Buren, who served between 1836 and 1840, appointed him Secretary of War. Besides being a botanist who traded seeds with friends on a worldwide basis, Poinsett was also an unabashed nationalist, experimenting with war rockets, lobbying for a national powder factory, and trying, without success, to establish a military draft system. He increased the size of the army by a third, and many of his soldiers helped transport Indians westward. During Poinsett's term as secretary of war, more Indians were displaced than at any other time. 

While ambassador Poinsett meddled so much in the affairs of Mexico and the rest of Latin America that the term Poinsettismo was coined to describe officious and intrusive conduct. When he took sides in a political dispute, Poinsett was finally declared person non grata by the exasperated Mexican government. With his life in danger, Poinsett was recalled to Washington on Christmas Day. 

During the last years of his life, Poinsett continued to employ the flower throughout the South as a symbol of Christmas, and succeeded in making a small fortune by introducing it to the United States and the rest of the world. He introduced the plant to the National Institute for the National Association of Science, a precursor of the Smithsonian Institute. According to Dr. Robert Faden, a botanist at the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of Natural History, the poinsettia belongs to a large and fascinating species of plants, the Euphobiaceac, that might provide a cleaner, renewable substitute for gasoline and other fossil fuels. 

It is ironic that the flower that originally symbolized Aztec blood sacrifice also came to symbolize the blood of Christ, Christmas, and the blood sacrifices of a U. S. Secretary of War who drove more Indians from their homes than any other government official. Five hundred years after the first encounter between Europe and this continent, we should attempt to recapture the history and the contributions of the indigenous peoples. It would be a noble act to give the flower its original name, cuetlaxochitl-"Flower that withers, flower that perishes, like all that is pure." 

Much of this material is from Drink Cultura by Jose Antonio Burciaga: Capra Press/Santa Barbara/1993 


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