Andreja Brulc's Blog

MEXICO Project: Christmas Symbol: Poinsettia

Posted in MEXICO by andrejabrulc on 26/12/2012

DSC_0438In Mexico, in addition to piñatas, another important Christmas symbol is a poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). My mother has been buying the flower grown in a pot ever since I remember in order to decorate our dinner table for Christmas. As she calls it a ‘Christmas Star’ (officially known in Slovenia!), I thought it was just a pretty red flower that grew around Christmas in some European greenhouse in the middle of winter and that was part of modern capitalist money-spinning world to make our Christmas dinner table prettier! But until my research on Mexico I had no idea that the flower has in fact a very long Christmas tradition that goes back to the 16th century and that its origin brings me to Mexico!

My fascination with the poinsettia actually begun before my research in early November when I saw it for the first time in the garden (below) of a lovely woman called Eulalia Florina Morales from Teotitlan del Valle, a town in the Valley of Oaxaca famous for a pedal-loom weaving. I went to see her workshop, where she showed me the process of preparing a raw wool for hand-spining and eventually for weaving.

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Origins and description

The poinsettia is native to Mexico and central America. It can be found in the wild in deciduous tropical forest at moderate elevations from southern Sinaloa State down the entire Pacific coast of Mexico to Chiapas and Guatemala. Also, it grows in the interior in the hot, seasonally dry forests of the States of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas.

To my surprise, the poinsettia is actually not a flower but rather a small tree or a shrub, typically reaching a height of 0.6 to 4 m (2 to 16 ft).

DSC_0622 DSC_0623The coloured bracts – which are most often flaming red but can be orange, pale green, cream, pink, white or marbled – are often mistaken for flower petals because of their groupings and colors, but are actually leaves. The colors of the bracts are created through photoperiodism, meaning that they require darkness (12 hours at a time for at least 5 days in a row) to change color. At the same time, the plants require abundant light during the day for the brightest color.

DSC_0319 DSC_0321DSC_0615There are over 100 cultivated varieties of poinsettia. While the main public squares (zócalos and plazas) and those in front of the churches as above in Ocotlán and Teotitlan del Valle in the Oaxaca Valley may carefully be planted with the commercially grown red poinsettias each year during the month of December leading up to Christmas, the poinsettia is actually a pride of almost every Mexican house such as the gardens below at San Filipe del Agua and in Forestal near Oaxaca – the other three flowers are frangipani, bougainvillea and dahlia.

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The flower seems to be also a popular choice to be carried in processions on feast days during this time of the year in Oaxaca, as in the procession of children for the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico (12 Dec) (Peregrinacíon infantil al santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe).

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Christmas association

The flower had already been in use in Mexico before the Conquest. In Nahuatl, the language of the AZTECS, the plant is called Cuitlaxochitl (from cuitlatl, residue, and xochitl, flower) meaning “flower that grows in residues or soil.” The Aztecs used the plant to produce red dye and as an antipyretic medication (i.e modern day ibuprofen and aspirin).

The plant’s association with Christmas began in the 16th century in Mexico. I found two versions of the legend how the poinsettia was found. In the FIRST, a little boy named Pablo was walking to a shrine in his village to see baby Jesus and had nothing to offer to the child. Having seen greenish branches that grew everywhere, he collected them and laid them on the manter though other children teased him. But to the surprise of others, red-shaped flowers soon appeared on each branch. In the SECOND, a young girl was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus’ birthday. The tale says that the child was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson ‘blossoms’ sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias.

From the 17th century, Franciscan friars included it in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem and the red color represents the sacrifice of blood through the crucifixion of Jesus. In Spain it is known as ‘Flor de Pascua’ meaning ‘Easter flower’. In both Chile and Peru, the plant became known as ‘Crown of the Andes’. In Mexico and Guatamala it is now known as Noche Buena meaning ‘Christmas Eve’. It is therefore extensively used in Christmas celebrations in these two countries, from where it eventually spread as a Christmas flower to other parts of the world.

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