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The Christmas poinsettia

I like the winter. At the time of this writing, during this happy time of Advent in the run up to Christmas, I am conscious of a growing curiously in nature that is teased out by the barer branches and the naked hedgerows. You can see farther in winter than in the leafy eruptions of spring or the stillness of summer, but not for longer.

It is an awareness I feel most keenly when I drive through the country lanes of Worcestershire from one landscaping job to another. Previously unseen fields and the alluring sight of an unknown village pub, with its chimney smoking out the age-old comfort of warmth, drink, and company, beckon.

It is a feeling that is only reinforced with the contrast of the bright Christmas colours of decoration and the brilliant crimson of the seasonal Poinsettia.

And this got me wondering. Why is it that we associate these plants with Christmas? What is it in their history that gives it this precedence?

The Poinsettia originates from Mexico and Central America, so it was completely unknown in the Old World until the sixteenth century. As Christianity spread throughout Mexico from the 1520s onward, filling the vacuum of a belief system that had been devastated by war but more importantly through mass Smallpox endemics that the native population had little, or no, immunity from, the local fauna and flora of the New World came to be included in festivities for key dates in the new belief system.

Later in the sixteenth century, the legend goes, a young girl from a very poor family was inspired by an angel to pick roadside plants to celebrate Jesus’s birthday. Putting them before the altar, they soon after blossomed into the beautiful plants we know today.

But it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that this local connection began to be spread to the outside world by the globalising force of the USA, when Joel Poinsettia, the first United States Minister to Mexico and from whom we take the name of the plant, introduced it to his home nation.

It took nearly another century for it to start its journey to becoming the modern days most famous Christmas flower, and it was all because of the efforts of the Ecke family, who, over the twentieth century, found a way of growing them into attractive blooms (which gave them a virtual monopoly on the plant until a university researcher discovered how to do it in the 1990s). From this moment on, the Poinsettia, by allowing itself to be so domesticated to human needs (in this case, Christmas and spirituality), became a global plant.

I suppose what this represents more than anything is how, in our globalised world, a local tradition can be caught up in a global celebration and spread to all the four corners. It does make me wonder if the Catalan tradition of Caganer will spread so successfully too. Perhaps, in this globalised world of ours, we’ll all have a Christmas figurine of that!

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