December 22, 2010

Christmas in Mexico: Deck the Halls with Poinsettia

There is a legend told in Mexico about poinsettia. Two young children, Maria and Pablo, were walking into town. They had heavy hearts. In the center of town was a nativity scene, where everyone was going to leave gifts and tokens of their esteem for the Holy Family. Maria and Pablo had nothing. They were too poor. But they wanted to give something.

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Then Pablo had an idea. All along the side of the road were weeds, ubiquitious to this part of Mexico. He picked an armful of them, explaining to Maria that, as long as their gift was given with love, it would be alright. It had to be alright. What else had they got?

So the children continued into town, to where the people were amassing around the nativity. As Pablo and Maria passed through them, eyes turned to what gift they had brought to honour the Christ child. Nudges and sniggers filled the space around them. The children had brought weeds. Weeds! Pablo straightened his shoulders, raised his chin high and refused to cry. He was doing what he could. That was all.

They reached the manger, wherein lay baby Jesus. Mary and Joseph smiled down kindly. The shepherds, wise men and angels watched them. The livestock crowded in. Here Pablo and Maria took their time arranging the weeds around the manger, hemmed in by the richer, better, prettier offerings of everyone else. Those people who tittered with derision, pointing to what the children thought was a worthy gift.

Once they had finished, Pablo whispered, "We give this with love." Then he took Maria's hand and turned with her to face the townspeople. Head held high against their jeers, they were in a perfect position to see the changing expressions on those staring back. Smirks gave way to dropping jaws and wide eyes. Giggles turned to gasps of awe and shock. The children turned slowly around, to see what was happening behind them.

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The topmost leaves of the 'weeds' had transformed into beautiful, star-like flowers. All in vibrant red. The most wonderful flowers they had ever seen. The plant became known as Flor de Noche Buena (Christmas Eve flower) in Mexico. For some, it is called the Star of Bethlehem Flower. Most of the world knows it now as poinsettia.

At this time of year, many homes in Mexico are festooned with poinsettia. It is easy enough to find, as the plant is native to the country. We have vast fields and mountain-sides filled with them, as far as the eye can see. When they are in bloom, they are a breath-taking sight.

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Poinsettia overlooking Baja California


It was vistas like this which so entranced an early American ambassador to Mexico. In 1829, Dr Joel Roberts Poinsett was touring Taxco del Alarcon (modern day Taxco, in Guerrero), when he spotted the flower. He fell in love with it. In fact, he started shipping cuttings of Flor de Noche Buena back to his mansion home, in Georgetown, South Carolina, USA. When he returned home, in 1831, he was amazed to discover that the whole town now had the flower blooming in their gardens. They were already calling it after him. The poinsettia is still the name used for the flower outside Mexico.

Poinsettia was already well known before the coming of Christianity. The Nahuatl called it Cuitlaxochitl (star flower). They prized it for its curative properties (great for heart problems) and the red dye that can be extracted from it. (It is an urban myth that poinsettia is toxic, as endless tests in American laboratories have proved.)

Today, it not only grows wild around Mexico, but is used in many Christmas tableaus and as decorations in homes and plazas. Anyone visiting Mexico, this time of year, is bound to spot it everywhere.

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Poinsettia around a nativity scene in Mexico


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Poinsettia as Christmas lights in Mexico City

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