Poinsettia: the Christmas flower and the racist history behind La Cuetlaxochitl

Green and red are popular colors symbolizing the Christmas holiday season.

A visit to the hardware store may even have a red and green light bulbs display for your home to set the Christmas mood.

“La Cuetlaxochitl,” aka Poinsettia, the “Christmas plant”

It is no wonder that the “Poinsettia” plant has come to symbolize the Christmas season with its bright red and green leaves.

In Phoenix the plants begin from seeds in August and grow only green leaves. Around mid-October the first red leaves begin to grow and in December you can find these plants everywhere, including your corner Walgreens store for about $5.

Was it the plant that created the red-green symbol of Christmas, or was the plant chosen because of the pre-existing red-green symbology?

What many people may not know is that this American symbol of Christmas is firmly rooted in Aztec (Mexica) history, the same history that is trying to be banned in Tucson today.

The plant is known as Cuetlaxochitl (ket-la-sho-she) and was another stolen item from Mexican history and had its history white-washed in a gross way, which is evident in who the plant was renamed after in America, the horrendous Indian-hater Joel Roberts Poinsett, the former US ambassador to Mexico who was kicked out, but not before he stole La Cuetlaxochitl and made it his own.

Pre-Columbian history

The popular Christmas flower known in this country as the poinsettia was first called a cuetlaxochitl by the Aztecs.

It represented purity, and its name signified “Flower that withers, mortal flower that perishes like all that is pure”. The cuetlaxochitl was cultivated as an exotic gift from nature and admired but never touched. Its bright red color had been given by the gods as a reminder of the periodic sacrificial offerings in accordance with the creation of the Fifth Sue. The intense red represented cuetlaxochitl, the precious liquid of the sacrifices offered to the gods.

Beautiful botanical gardens existed throughout the Aztec empire in pre-Hispanic times. Flowers and herbal plants were cultivated for their beauty and medicinal purposes. From October to mid-May, the cuetlaxochitl was admired and observed as it flowered like “birds aflame”.

Circa 1440–1446, the great Aztec leader Tlacalel and his half-brother Montezuma Ilhuicamina visited the most beautiful of these gardens in Oaxatcpec, in what is now the Mexican state of Morelos, and revitalized the cultivation of the cuetlaxochitl there.

from Drink Cultura by Jose Antonio Burciaga.

Then came the Catholics.

One legend from sixteenth-century Mexico explains the flower’s origin. Franciscan friars evangelizing the area of Taxco celebrated one Christmas with a lavishly decorated nativity scene. The rosary and a litany were prayed, a pinata was broken, gifts were exchanged, and a mass was held, during which a miracle occurred: the flower decorating the nativity scene turned red. After that night, the flower was named flor de nochebuena, Flower of the Blessed Night.

Many other legends sprang forth, including one about a young child who had nothing to offer the Baby Jesus but a handful of weeds. When she presented them at the nativity scene, the weeds turned into beautiful, red flowers.

During the following centuries, the flor de nochebuena, or cuetlaxochitl, became a symbol of Christmas and of Mexico’s evangelization, and the flower’s bloom in October signaled the coming of Christmas.

Of course, the flower was used by the Catholics as further “proof” from God that the He (never a She) wanted the savage Natives to converted and used however the European colonizers desired.

The bloom of La Cuetlaxochitl

The science behind this is ignored, as the “bloom” is not the red leaves but the little yellow bloom that usually happens around Christmastime.

How appropriate then that in the United States, while a war on brown people was being waged, on July 22nd, 2002, our Congress was able to pass a bill declaring December 12th as “Poinsettia Day.”

Actually, the bill is more of a corporate butt-kissing bill sponsored by 6 California legislators praising the Paul Ecke floral mega-enterprise.

This is also another example of how Americans don’t know North American history (like how TUSD superintendent John Pedicone and board president Mark Stegeman voted to have to vote to demote Mexican American history on May 5th of 2011).

Let’s see… flowers that grow in the winter in Mexico City being used by Catholics to convert the savage Indians… and celebrating that day on December 12th!

Where have I heard this story before?

Who was Mr. Poinsett?

In the United States, the flower has another history and another name, but its origin is still Mexican. It all began when Joel Robert Poinsett was appointed as ambassador to Mexico. On Christmas day 1825, Ambassador Poinsett visited the Taxco church in Santa Prisca, where the Franciscans had adorned the nativity scene with exotic red flowers that gave it a very elegant and uncommon appearance.

Enamored of the flowers named Nochebuena, he shipped some to his friends back home in Charleston, South Carolina. This was the origin of naming these flower poinsettias in this century.

Ambassador Joel Poinsett was a multi-talented man. He studied medicine in England and was an amateur architect who built a state road, a bridge with a Gothic arch, and a church in South Carolina. He was a congressman and an unofficial U.S. ambassador to South America and Europe.

Early in Poinsett’s career, prior to his Mexican ambassadorship, president Martin Van Buren, who served between 1836 and 1840, appointed him Secretary of War. Besides being a botanist who traded seeds with friends on a worldwide basis, Poinsett was also an unabashed nationalist, experimenting with war rockets, lobbying for a national powder factory, and trying, without success, to establish a military draft system. He increased the size of the army by a third, and many of his soldiers helped transport Indians westward. During Poinsett’s term as secretary of war, more Indians were displaced than at any other time.

While ambassador Poinsett meddled so much in the affairs of Mexico and the rest of Latin America that the term Poinsettismo was coined to describe officious and intrusive conduct. When he took sides in a political dispute, Poinsett was finally declared person non grata by the exasperated Mexican government. With his life in danger, Poinsett was recalled to Washington on Christmas Day.

During the last years of his life, Poinsett continued to employ the flower throughout the South as a symbol of Christmas, and succeeded in making a small fortune by introducing it to the United States and the rest of the world.

from Drink Cultura by Jose Antonio Burciaga.

How ironic that to this day, Poinsett, the American Indian and Mexican hater, is most remembered for a flower that he stole from the Native Americans in Mexico.

For some reason, the truth of history is sometimes ignored in American History classes. Many Chicanos today refer to the flower only as Cuetlaxochitl, and now you know why.

Originally published at TSON News.



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Three Sonorans

Three Sonorans

Three Sonorans covers activist and progressive news for Tucson and Arizona. Ethnic Studies, SB1070, and the the epicenter of the new Civil Rights Movement.