The Poinsettia: A Symbolic Journey Through History and Christology
Fr. Scott A. Haynes
The vibrant Poinsettia, with its fiery red leaves, has become synonymous with the festive season, adorning homes and churches alike during Christmas celebrations. However, its history is deeply rooted in Mexico and carries significant Christological importance. This iconic plant's journey involves a blend of cultural, religious, and historical elements, intertwining with the traditions of the Mexican people, the story of Joel Roberts Poinsett, and the religious celebrations of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Poinsettias are native in the hills around Cuernavaca, in southern Mexico. There, poinsettias grow into big woody bushes that are often ten feet tall. The Aztec natives named the plant, cuetlaxochitl, means "dead flower that dies and withers like all that is pure."
The Aztecs used the cuetlaxochitl in many ways. They also used its red leaves to make a dye for beauty products and clothing. They crushed the plant and put it on skin sores or put pieces of the plant on someone's chest to get the blood flowing. The Aztecs used the plant's milky white sap, called latex, to make a medicine to treat fevers, and they considered it as a symbol of brave warriors who died in battle.
Origins and Naming
The Poinsettia, known scientifically as Euphorbia pulcherrima, was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, an American diplomat, physician, and botanist, who introduced it to the United States in the early 19th century and who vastly increased its popularity. During his tenure as the United States ambassador to Mexico, Poinsett came across the vivid plant and was instantly enthralled by its aesthetic appeal.
During his 1825 trip to Taxco, he was mesmerized by the crimson blossoms and proceeded to deliver several plants to his home in Greenville, South Carolina. Propagating the plants, Poinsett, an accomplished botanist, initiated the process of disseminating them to acquaintances and diverse botanical gardens. The plants eventually reached nurseryman Robert Buist, who is considered to have been the pioneer in selling the plant in the United States, within a span of a few years.
The plant was officially designated as the Poinsettia in 1833, in honor of Joel Poinsett. By proclamating December 12 as National Poinsettia Day, the United States Congress granted the poinsettia recognition. By God’s providence, Joel Poinsett would pass away on this National Poinsetta Day, December 12, 1851.
The Poinsettia’s Connection to Jesus and Mary
The Poinsettia holds a special place in Mexican culture, particularly during the celebrations of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This religious event, commemorating the apparition of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego on December 12, 1531, is the most significant in Mexico. During the festivities, the Poinsettia blooms in abundance. This symbolizes the fruit of Mary's womb, Jesus our Messiah and Lord.
The Poinsettia's rich red hue has deep Christological symbolism, often associated with the Passion of Christ. The red color is reminiscent of the blood shed during Christ's crucifixion. This connection adds a profound layer of meaning to the plant, transforming it into a visual representation of faith in Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God.
Beyond its association with Christ's sacrifice, the colors of the Poinsettia carry additional religious meanings. The deep green of its leaves symbolizes renewal, eternal life, and the resurrection of the body. The white, found in the plant's bracts, represents purity and the divine.
The distinctive shape of the Poinsettia's leaves has been likened to the Star of Bethlehem, a celestial body that guided the Magi to the birthplace of Jesus. This association deepens the plant's ties to the Christmas story, reminding believers of the guiding light that led the Wise Men to the newborn Messiah.
Taxco de Alarcon and Friar Antonio
The town of Taxco de Alarcon in Mexico plays a crucial role in the history of the Poinsettia. It is here that Friar Antonio, a Franciscan friar, is said to have incorporated the plant into the Christmas nativity scene. The Franciscan Friars, known for their missionary work, embraced the Poinsettia as a symbol of the nativity of St. Francis, further integrating it into Christian traditions.
Connection to the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre
The Poinsettia's association with the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre and its nativity procession further solidifies its place in Mexican religious celebrations. This festive event, rooted in Christian traditions, emphasizes the role of the Poinsettia in symbolizing the joy and spirituality of the Christmas season. The plant's presence during the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre underscores its importance in Mexican religious and cultural practices.
The Poinsettia's journey through history is a tapestry woven with threads of culture, religion, and tradition. From its origins in Mexico to its introduction to the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett, this iconic plant has become an integral part of Christmas celebrations worldwide. Its Christological importance, reflected in its colors, shape, and cultural connections, adds a layer of depth to the festive season, reminding believers of the profound religious significance that underlies the beauty of the Poinsettia. As we admire its vibrant red leaves and unique shape, we are invited to reflect on the rich history and spiritual symbolism that make the Poinsettia a cherished symbol of Christmas.