Highlighting the Holidays: The Poinsettia

(The following is a guest post from Francisco Macias of the Law Library of Congress.)

 Nativity scene sculpture with poinsettias. Photo by Theodor Horydczak, ca. 1920-1950. Prints and Photographs Division.

Nativity scene sculpture with poinsettias. Photo by Theodor Horydczak, ca. 1920-1950. Prints and Photographs Division.

Each winter we see poinsettias adorning houses, shopping centers and offices throughout the country. But a little known fact is that the poinsettia is an endemic flora of Mexico. In Spanish it is often called “flor de nochebuena” or simply “nochebuena,” which translates to “holy-night flower.”

According to Mexico City’s Agency for Urban Management, its use as a holiday decoration originates from the early colonial encounter by Franciscan friars, who in turn came to use it to decorate the crèches or nativity scenes. In the Náhuatl language, the flower is called “cuetlaxóchitl,” which means “flower that withers.” It was a symbol of purity, and as such it is more poetically said to be a “mortal flower that withers and perishes like all that is pure.”

According to an entry about “cuetlaxsuchitl” by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún in the “General History of the Things of New Spain“:

“Ay unos arboles en las flor estas que se llama Cuetlaxsuchitl que quando quiebran las ramas destos arboles mana dellas leche on un humor blanco como leche: estos arboles crian unos flores que se llama Cuetlaxsuchitl: las hojas de las quales [sic] son como hojas de cerezo: pero muy coloradas y blandas tiene colorado muy fino pero no tienen ningun olor son hermosas por eso son preciadas.” (pg. 379 – 80; transcribed from the original, as it appears, which serves to explain inconsistencies with modern orthography and omission of diacritics.)

Poinsettia Beginning of Article

“There are trees that bear these flowers called ‘Cuetlaxsuchitl’ whose branches produce a milk-like substance when they are broken. These trees produce flowers called ‘Cuetlaxsuchitl.‘ The leafs are like those of the cherry tree, but they are very red and pliable. They feature a very fine hue of red, but they have no fragrance. They are indeed beautiful, hence the reason why they are prized.” [Translation with modifications to make it more legible.]

The plant made its way to the United States in the 1820s, thanks to Joel Roberts Poinsett, who was appointed the first U.S. Minister to Mexico (1825-1829) and whose death, on Dec. 12, 1851, resulted in the English re-naming of poinsettia as we know it in today.

More stories on historical holiday-themed items from the Library of Congress can be found here.

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