Traditional Mexican Christmas Décor: Live Poinsettia
The most common Mexican home Christmas decorations are live poinsettias and a nativity scene. The charming custom of red and green symbolizing the holiday originated in Mexico, as did the poinsettia plant. The bright red flowers are known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, for they bloom each year during the Christmas season.
The plant presently known as Poinsettia is native in an area of southern Mexico known as Taxco del Alarcon. The ancient Aztecs had a name for this plant found blooming in the tropical highlands during the short days of winter: cuetlaxochitl. Not merely decorative, the Aztecs put the plant to practical use. From its bracts they extracted a purplish dye for use in textiles and cosmetics. The blood-red bracts were often placed on the chests of those suffering afflictions of the heart to help stimulate circulation. They were sometimes crushed to a pulp to be used as a poultice for the treatment of skin infections. The milky white sap, today called latex, was made into a preparation to treat fevers. For centuries the brilliant red winter flower was treasured by the indigenous Mexicans, then along came the gringos. It is believed that the poinsettia flower was first used in connection with Christmas in the 17th century when Mexican Franciscans included the abundant wild flowers in their Christmas celebration.
In the 19th century, a man named Poinsett was appointed as the first United States Ambassador to Mexico (1825 – 1829) by President Adams. Poinsett had attended medical school himself, but his real love in the scientific field was botany. (Mr. Poinsett later founded the institution which we know today as the Smithsonian Institution). Imagine his joy to discover the wealth of exotic flowers flourishing in Mexico. I’m sure he couldn’t wait to finish his duties so he could tromp around the mountains gathering flowers to transplant and appreciate at home!
Poinsett maintained his own hothouses on his Greenville, South Carolina United States plantations, and while visiting the Taxco area in 1828, he became enchanted by the brilliant red blooms he saw there. He immediately sent some of the plants back to South Carolina, where he began propagating the plants and sending them to North American friends and botanical gardens. From there, commercial propagation led to expansion of the available colors and world-wide availability.
All the local nurseries offer excellent quality poinsettia plants. The local La Penita Thursday market, trianguis, has fantastic specimens at a very low price. Unwrap your poinsettia carefully and place in indirect light. Six hours of light daily is ideal. DO NOT PLACE IN DIRECT SUNLIGHT.
In this southern latitude, if you stick your poinsettia plant in the ground, it will become a perennial shrub. Only water when the top soil is dry. The bloom should last for 4-6 weeks and re-bloom on its own the next December.
I enjoy decorating with live and artificial poinsettia. It also makes a lovely hostess gift throughout the holidays. Nothing symbolizes Christmas and the holiday season like poinsettias this Mexican weed. As you enjoy family and friends, take a second to reflect on the miracle of the humble poinsettia and thank Mexico for this gift.