At Christmas, our church always has poinsettia flowers. I know they don’t grow here, but I heard there is some sort of Mexican or Central American tradition about them. What’s the story so I can tell the children? — Green Bay
What we call the “poinsettia” is native to Mexico, and it is called “Flor de Noche Buena” (Christmas Eve Flower). They are also found in Central America. The Aztecs called this plant cuetlaxóchitl, which means “flower that withers, mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure.” The poinsettia was an ornate plant highly appreciated by the Aztecs.
In the 17th century, Franciscan missionaries settled in an area of southern Mexico known as Taxco. The poinsettia flower became, for the first time, a part of Christian ceremony when it was used in the Nativity procession by the Franciscan missionaries.
There is a beautiful and delightful Christmas story about a little girl, named Pepita, with no gift to honor the baby Jesus. Pepita was heartbroken at not having the money to buy baby Jesus a present. An angel appeared and told Pepita that any gift from the heart would surely be appreciated.
Pepita picked a handful of weeds from the roadside and continued to church. At church, people had lined up to place their gifts at the foot of the baby Jesus. They looked at the little girl in disbelief as she placed her weeds near the manger.
Suddenly, the weeds changed into beautiful red flowers, and everyone who witnessed the gift swore they had witnessed none other than a Christmas miracle. After that, each year at Christmas time, beautiful red poinsettias bloomed on the roadside. People began to spread word of the miracle witnessed, and the red flowers were called “Flores de Noche Buena,” “Flowers of the Holy Night.”
The story of Pepita is told each year in Mexico. This year, if you do not have money to buy presents, remember a gift from the heart is the most precious gift of all.
The first United States Minister to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, introduced the plant into the U.S. in 1825. Since then poinsettias have become an American holiday symbol.
Sr. Escobar is Hispanic ministry director for the Diocese of Green Bay.