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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Legend of the Poinsettia

Air Date: Week of

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, kissyface)

Host Steve Curwood recalls the Legend of the Poinsettia, or how the flower came to be considered the official Christmas flower in Mexico. Latino USA host Maria Hinojosa, storytellers Elida Guardia Bonet and Antonio Sacre explain how this tale relates to their lives.


CURWOOD: Time now for another holiday story from Mexico and I'll share this one with everybody. It's called The Legend of the Poinsettia.

Pepita was a little girl who lived in the small village of San Pancho, Mexico, hundreds of years ago. Pepita's parents were farmers and they were very poor, and as Christmas approached, Pepita's mother and father became sick. She had to help care for her little brother and sister. There was much work to be done, and young Pepita did her best to cook and clean and help with the burro in the fields. All the other people of the village were busy decorating the church and making special gifts to give to the baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. Everyone was planning to take part in the Christmas Eve procession, singing and carrying candles.

Then, Padre Gonzales would place the figure of the baby Jesus in the manger, and the villagers would place their special gifts around the manger. Pepita had tried to weave a colorful blanket for the baby, but she was too little and the yarns became tangled. She tried to sew little leather boots for her gifts, but the leather was too tough and she was not strong enough to push the needle through. She tried to think of something very special that her family could give to the baby Jesus, but with her parents sick and her younger brother and sister too small to help, she could think of nothing. And soon, it was Christmas Eve.

The villagers lit the candles and began singing, as they walked through San Pancho, carrying their gifts to place at the manger. Pepita hid in the darkness, watching with tears in her eyes as the procession went to the church. Suddenly, an old man stepped from the shadows nearby: "Little girl, are you Pepita?" he said.

"Si," answered Pepita, wondering who he could be.

"I have a message for you," he said. "Your mama and papa are going to get well soon. Do not worry. Go to the church and celebrate Christmas with the other villagers. Your brother and sister are waiting for you."

"I can't," Pepita told him. "I don't have a gift to put in the manger. I tried and I tried to make something, but I couldn't finish it."

"Ah, Pepita, whatever you give the baby Jesus will love, because it comes from you."

"But, but, what can I give?" And Pepita began looking around.

She saw a big patch of green weeds nearby. Pepita rushed over and picked a huge armful. Then she turned to the old man, but he was gone. Pepita walked into the church. All the candles were blazing. The children were singing as she came down the aisle with her bundle of green weeds. "What is Pepita carrying?" the villagers whispered. “She's bringing weeds into the church.” Pepita placed the green weeds all around the manger, and she bowed her head and prayed.

A hush fell over the church. Then voices whispered, "Look, look, look at the weeds!" Pepita opened her eyes. Each weed was topped with a flaming red star, and when everyone went outside, after the Mass, all the bunches of tall green weeds throughout the town were covered with red. Pepita's simple gift had become beautiful. And since then, every December, the red stars shine on the top of the green branches in Mexico.

Of course, those green weeds are poinsettias. The plants are native to Mexico and Central America. The Aztec's revered them as a gift from the gods. Later, poinsettias became associated with Christmas, because they bloom at this time of year. In Mexico they're called Fire Flower, or Christmas Flower, or Flower of the Holy Night. They were first brought North by Joel Roberts Poinsett, who served as the U.S. minister to Mexico from 1825 to 1830. He eventually became wealthy breeding these plants that now bear his name. And, by the way, contrary to popular myth, poinsettias aren't poisonous.

Elida, what does that story bring up for you?

BONET: I tell that story, and I think it's a beautiful legend. I grew up with poinsettias always at Christmas time. I have one of my aunt’s, who used to grow them in her backyard, and she always gave them to us for Christmastime. And I didn't know the story growing up, so it was real interesting, when I heard the story, to relate it to my growing up with the poinsettias. But we never called them poinsettias; we always called them la flor de Navidad, or la flor de la Noche Buena.

CURWOOD: The Flower of the Holy Night.

BONET: Mm-hm.


HINOJOSA: Yeah. I just, in listening to that story I remember my mom, when we would go to Mexico, over the holidays, and she would say, “Vamos a comprar las nochebuenas; tenemos que ir a buscar las nochebuenas.” And there was always this thing about “las nochebuenas, las nochebuenas,” and I would be like, “What?” Because “Noche Buena” means good night, or holy night, and I didn't quite understand it until then. Finally, I would see my mom going to the market and stocking up and making sure that the house was filled with nochebuenas. But I had never heard that story. So for me, it's a story that now you can be sure that I will be incorporating into my own family's traditions of our Domini-Mex kids who are experiencing Christmas. Who knows where they'll be, anywhere from New York to Bethlehem, Connecticut, to Mexico, to the Dominican Republic. But I guess this will be part of the stories that I'll just tell them now, because it's really wonderful.

CURWOOD: Antonio?

SACRE: Well, it just reminded me of how incredible a celebration the whole Christmas season is for Latinos. I mean, it starts with the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and then it goes all the way through January 6th, the Day of the Kings, the Three Kings, and the posadas all through. It's a two-month, huge party is what it is, and that's just—when I see the poinsettias I begin to remember this is the beginning of the party, and it won't end until, well for some people, all the way into February.

CURWOOD: You're listening to the Living on Earth holiday special, Celebrations in Latino Landscapes, in cooperation with Latino USA. I'm Steve Curwood, and we'll be right back.



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