Updated: Dec 9, 2021
A few years ago, the people of Taxco, Guerrero, Mexico proclaimed December 7th as the day to honor the beautiful flower that today many people associate with Christmas, and that is known in the United States as poinsettia.
Along with tamales, buñuelos, and champurrado for many of us bringing the beauty of the elegant Flor de Noche Buena into our home signals the beginning of the holiday season. What many people don’t know is its origins and meaning.
The red flame-like cuetlaxochitl (Nahuatl) blooms during the winter solstice and signals the start of a new cycle of life. Its name translates into "mortal flower that perishes and withers like all that is pure."
But, how did it arrive in the United States? It came about via Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett who was named the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, 1825-1829. However, his tenure as ambassador was not well-received. "he argued that Mexicans were fully capable of republican self-governance, but only if “white Creoles” retained their place atop the social order." Even today, many Chicanos/as/x, Mexican, and Indigenous people speak of his racist and anti-Indigenous views and advocate for the reclaiming of the flower's original Native, Nahuatl, name.
While in Mexico, Dr. Poinsett saw the cuetlaxochitl for the first time when he paid a visit to a church in Taxco and noticed that the Franciscan monks had decorated the nativity scene with beautiful and exotic red flowers. Dr. Poinsett later brought the cuetlaxochitl to the United States and raised it in his greenhouses in Charleston, South Carolina. It was named poinsettia in his honor in 1836. From then on, it started being known as the Flower of Christmas Eve, La Flor de Noche Buena. But, it has a much earlier history.
The cuetlaxochitl was honored as a divine gift in acknowledgement that it had been given to humanity to help re-birth the light on Mother Earth. Temples were adorned with this elegant and dignified plant as its flowering coincided with the date of the birth of Huitzilopochtli, Left-Handed Hummingbird, on the winter solstice. Huitzilopochtli represents the sacred power related to the sun and the cuetlaxochitl's red leaves symbolizes the sacred energy of the life force of blood. It also represents the blood of warriors killed in battle and heralded the return of those warriors to this world as hummingbirds, huitzilin, returning to release the nectar/honey from the flowers (honey being associated with light). Flowers are among one of the important spiritual symbols for the soul.
According to oral tradition there is an even earlier story. It is said that the flower was initially white in color but that after the killing of the people of Taxco by the Mexika, the leaves of the cuetlaxochitl, at their next blooming, turned red.
Traditional knowledge has many medicinal uses for the cuextlaxochitl: as a tea it increases the amount of breast milk of nursing mothers; combined with other plants it is an important and well-guarded woman's medicine, the milky sap of the plant is used to prepare poultices to treat skin diseases, and a red dye made from the leaves is used to color textiles and crafts. It is important to note that as with some medicinal plants, if it is not used correctly, it can be poisonous to humans as well as toxic to some animals.
In the seventeenth century, botanist Juan Balme described the beautiful Cuetlaxochtil: "The flower is tiny, like the bougainvillea, but is surrounded by bracts that appear to shield or shields to protect it, with big green leaves turning red are to those of blood, of which the Indians obtained by grinding, cooking and filtration, especially heated dye, which stained purple amaranth and cotton fibers. The aqueous juice of the plant, like milk, drew healing substances in preparations for fever cleverly designed.”
I agree that it is time that this beautiful flower be called by its Nahuatl name: Cuetlaxochitl. Just as many of us are reclaiming our ancestral Native connections, names, and customs perhaps our plant relatives too long to hear us call them by their true name.
However, you celebrate the holidays, may the virtues of our venerable cuetlaxochitl bring light, healing, and peace to your heart and to your home.
Artist Credit: Jose Gonzalez (image on left), http://www.josegagonzalez.com/
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