Native to Central America and southern Mexico, this beautiful plant was popularized in the U.S. by Joel Roberts Poinsett. He was appointed the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico in 1825, where he admired the flowers. Poinsett brought some of the plants back to his plantation in Greenville, South Carolina, where he grew them in greenhouses and gave them to his friends and to botanical gardens. After he died on December 12, 1851, Congress declared the anniversary of his death as Poinsettia Day.
Perhaps because they bloom in winter, the poinsettia is considered a symbol of Christmas and is called the Christmas Flower. Mexican folklore tells of a poor girl who had nothing to bring as a gift to the baby Jesus at Christmas. Hoping that even the smallest gift presented in love would please Him, she picked some weeds by the side of the road on her way to the Christmas Eve service. As she presented her bouquet at the altar, so the story goes, the leaves at the tips of the branches turned into brilliant red flowers.
Poinsettias have special significance to my husband and me, as our anniversary is December 31. For our wedding, we used potted red poinsettias to decorate the church. (Since we were still in college and on a tight budget, being able to borrow the potted plants that had been used for the Christmas services saved us money.)
Christians have equated the shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves to the Star of Bethlehem which led the Wise Men to Jesus, which is why the plant is also called the Christmas Star. The red flowers (which are actually a type of leaf known as bracts, not actual flowers) symbolize the blood of Christ. The white leaves represent His purity.
As we decorate with or admire the poinsettias this Christmas, let’s also remember the symbolism. “In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ“(Ephesians 2:13, ESV). Without the significance of His death, celebrating Jesus’ birth loses its meaning.