The Story of Salvation...

Nov 09, 2023 / Written by: Tonia Long told by the Poinsettia

What do poinsettias and Nativity scenes share in common? Well, Christmas, obviously. But there is much more to this connection. And it all began with Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone, the Italian mystic and Catholic friar who founded the Franciscans.

Nativity at the Gate House at the ANF Headquarters in Spring Grove, PA.

Saint Francis of Assisi spent a great deal of time meditating on the life of Christ. This was the practice that led him to create the first-ever Nativity scene in Greccio, Italy, in 1223. According to the first biographer of SaintFrancis, Brother Thomas of Celano, the saint desired to “represent the birth of that Child in Bethlehem in such a way that with our bodily eyes, we may see what he suffered for lack of the necessities of a newborn babe and how he lay in a manger between the ox and ass.”

Saint Francis worships the Christ Child - Greccio - Attrib: Wikimedia commons
Saint Francis worships the Christ Child by Greccio - Attrib: Wikimedia commons

That was how, in December 1223, in the rocky crags a short distance outside Greccio, people flocked to see the simple scene during Christmas Mass. According to accounts of the moment, fires lit the dark scene while crowds arrived at the spot carrying candles and torches. An eyewitness, Giovanni Veleti, asserted that he saw a real infant appear in the empty manger and that Saint Francis took the beautiful child into his arms, holding him to his chest in an embrace.

Other miracles were reported, brought about by touching the straw of the manger where the Child Jesus had appeared. Miraculous healings took place after pieces of hay were placed on sick animals or laboring women in difficulty. The place where the first Nativity was staged can still be seen today in the Franciscan hermitage and sanctuary outside Assisi. The rock is topped by an altar for celebrating Mass and adorned with frescoes depicting Jesus’ birth.

Four Hundred Years Later

As the influence of Saint Francis and his order of mendicants spread throughout Christendom, so did the use of the Nativity scene. By using the natural elements at hand, Catholics through the centuries have used the manger scene to facilitate a deeper sense of devotion to and appreciation of what the Christ Child, Mary and Saint Joseph endured that very first Christmas night.

One of those “natural elements” is the poinsettia, originally called “cuetlaxochitl.” Used for centuries by the natives of Mexico and Central America for medicinal and dyeing purposes, this humble “weed” was patiently waiting for its rich Christological significance to be discovered. And discovered it was by none other than the spiritual sons of Saint Francis who were bringing the Catholic Faith to the New World in the seventeenth century. The poinsettia’s debut was made when Franciscan monks in the town of Taxco de Alarcon first used the shrub in Nativity processions.

It was also at this point in history that the legend of Pepita and the “Flowers of the Holy Night” began.

The Flowers of the Holy Night

Resonating with echoes of “The Little Drummer Boy,” the legend of Pepita goes like this:

Pepita - Attribution:
Pepita - Attribution:

In an obscure little village in the hills of Mexico, the Catholic Faith had become well-accepted thanks to the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the indefatigable efforts of the Franciscan friars. By the seventeenth century, the previously barren month of December had become alive with preparations for the coming of the Infant Savior.

On the twelfth of December, the quiet town of Taxco de Alarcon came alive with celebrations culminating in a festive parade in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. But things did not quiet down the next day, oh no! For now there were just twelve short days until the Feast of all feasts occurred – Christmas Day itself. And for that, the living Nativity scene had to be made.

The best carpenters in the village busily assembled a humble stable on the outskirts of the town. Meanwhile, in the market square, votes were cast for who would play the parts of the angels, the shepherds, Mary and Joseph, and the kings from the Orient. And which family in the village had delivered a baby recently? What an honor it was to have a child born in December, for he surely would be chosen for the lead role as the newborn King of kings.

And let’s not forget the animals! Did Juan still have the sweet little donkey that carried Mary in last year’s Christmas procession, the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre? How many sheep will Senor Carlos let us use this year for the shepherds? And, of course, we will need three lamas again in place of camels.

Llama © Mipam
Attribution: © Mipam

As these questions and so many others filled the minds of the inhabitants of Taxco de Alarcon, one little girl sat alone with a cat and pondered a question all her own. Her name was Pepita and she was eight years old.

Coming from a poor family, young Pepita had nothing that she could call her own; not even the cat she was petting belonged to her. Even the clothes on her back had been worn by her older sister. When given to Pepita, she was warned, “Now do not put a stain or a rip in this dress, little Pepita. For you know this will have to go to Juanita once you have outgrown it.”

Alas, it seemed that the only “possession” Pepita had was the question that plagued her young mind – “What have I to give to Baby Jesus?”

Just then, Pepita was pulled from her reverie by the merry whistling of Brother Antonio. Spying the little girl with the cat on her lap, and noticing the worry wrinkles prominent on her young brow, the kind Brother paused. Looking down, he asked, “What is troubling you today, Pepita? Did you not get chosen to be in the Christmas Nativity procession?”

Hearing the genuine concern in the man’s voice, with childlike trust Pepita poured out her lamentation, greatly lubricated by her tears, which the good Brother dabbed away with the hem of his brown habit.

“What do you mean you have nothing of your own to give to Baby Jesus? Did not the good God create everything for us? Is not even this little weed the work of His Hands, and therefore precious in His sight? Look, Pepita, how even this bush by my feet proclaims the birth of Our Savior!”

And with that, Brother Antonio pointed to a cluster of cuetlaxochitl growing nearby, saying, “See, these red leaves caught the Blood of Jesus as it fell from the Cross and brings it back to us every December. This cluster of golden flowers in the center? Why, these are just like the golden crown He wears in Heaven right now!”

Poinsettia's - Attribution: © Agcuesta
Poinsettia's - Attribution: © Agcuesta

As he traced the outside of the red leaves with his finger, he asked, “What shape do you see here repeated in the red leaves?”

Pepita was intrigued by this question, which momentarily eclipsed her own. She watched the friar's finger intently until she recognized the pattern and shouted out, “A star! It is just like the star on Christmas night, Brother Antonio!”

Little Mexican girl - Attribution: © Rpedemonte
Attribution: © Rpedemonte

“Yes, Pepita, you are right! The shape of the leaves resembles the Star of Bethlehem, which led the Wise Men to Jesus so long ago. So, you see, little one, this beautiful flower belongs to you, and I think that it would make the perfect gift for Baby Jesus. What do you think of that?”

With a glint in her eye, Pepita replied, “I think you are a very smart man, Brother Antonio. But I also think you forgot something.”

In feigned surprise, the friar said, “No! It cannot be! What could I have forgotten?”

Single Poinsettia - Attrib: © Piksel

“Don’t you always tell us in catechism class that green is the color of hope? That that is why God paints the fields in green every spring after the long, gray winter? Well, beneath these ‘Blood of Jesus’ leaves are a whole bunch of ‘Hope in Jesus’ leaves. You forgot the most important part! But that’s ok; I forget things, too, sometimes.”

And with that, Pepita forgot all about having “nothing” to give to Baby Jesus and instead decided to collect eight cuetlaxochitl to carry in the Fiesta of Santa Pesebre Nativity procession—one for each Christmas she had celebrated.


You, Dear Reader, may yet have one question on your mind at this point of our story: “Is ‘poinsettia’ the English word for ‘cuetlaxochitl’?”

Well, yes and no.

By way of explanation, here is the rest of the story:

Poinsettias were introduced to the United States by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first appointed U.S. ambassador to Mexico. In 1825, while visiting Taxco, he became enchanted with the red blooms and sent some plants to his home in Greenville, South Carolina.

Joel Poinsett
Joel Poinsett: U.S. Secretary of War; U.S. House of Representatives; first American minister to Mexico; namesake of the poinsettia. Attribution: Wikimedia Commons

Poinsett, a skilled botanist, propagated the plants and began distributing them to friends and various botanical gardens. Within a few years, some plants eventually reached Robert Buist, a nurseryman, who is believed to be the first person to sell the plant in the United States. In 1833, the plant was given the common name “poinsettia,” the name-sake of Joel Poinsett. The poinsettia didn’t become traditional holiday decorations in America until the entrepreneurial Ecke family started promoting them a century later.

To end on a decidedly Catholic note, the man the Christmas Flower is named after died in 1851 on December 12*, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. What a marvelous “coincidence” that even today in Mexico, poinsettias play a prominent role in this celebration; where on December 12, hundreds of thousands of people travel to Mexico City to visit the place where the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego.

*Note: U.S. Congress declared December 12 to be National Poinsettia Day, the anniversary of Poinsett’s death.

Header image: The sanctuary and altar of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Philadelphia - Attribution: Mjudedunn -