As soon as the last Day of the Dead’s cempazuchitl were swept away, noche buenas appeared by the roadsides. By now they bedeck stores, office buildings, gardens and homes. Because the cut poinsettia quickly wilts, we see them in pots of all shapes and sizes, or planted in the soil in park settings or boulevard medians.
Surprisingly, poinsettias are a relatively recent addition to Christmas tradition outside of Mexico. Native to central Mexico, likely the areas around Cuernavaca and Taxco, the poinsettia was known by its Nahuatl name, Cuitlaxochitl and valued for the curative nature of the milky substance in the stem as well as the red leaves’ natural dye. Requiring repeated periods of 12-14 hours of darkness, the poinsettia’s bloom cycle serendipitously coincides with Christmas.
Early in Mexico’s Christian church the poinsettia became linked with Christmas through a myth of a poor child traveling on Christmas Eve to visit the nativity scene but without a gift to take to the baby Jesus. Believing Jesus would welcome any gift offered in love the child stopped by a field and picked up some dry branches. When carefully laid before the nativity, the branches transformed to crimson noche buenas. It was the first manger scene adorned with the beautiful poinsettia. It would not be the last.
Like the bougainvillea, the brilliant red “flower” is actually the leaves of the plant, more properly known as bracts. The flower, in the center of each leaf bunch, is tiny and yellow.
Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), first U.S. minister to Mexico after independence from Spain, popularized the flower, and in doing so, managed to have his name become a household word in the English-speaking world. He first saw the plant in 1823 when visiting a church in Taxco. By all accounts the flower became his life’s passion.
Poinsett sent plants from Mexico to his home in Charleston, South Carolina. Soon the “star flower” was growing in his neighbors' gardens. Poinsett, an ardent amateur botanist, spent the latter years of his life propagating flowers and making the “poinsettia” a symbol of Christmas. Whatever it is called, poinsettia, noche buena, star flower or Cuitlaxochitl, it is one of Mexico’s many gifts to the world.
In the early 1900’s German Albert Ecke immigrated to the U.S. and also succumbed to the poinsettia’s seduction. For three generations the California Ecke Ranch has promoted the poinsettia as a Christmas flower. Albert’s son Paul developed a secret grafting technique that allowed for the fuller plant we see today.
More recently, in the 1990s, a Canadian priest, entrusted with Cuernavaca's Church of the Three Kings, asked English sculptor John Spencer (1928-2005) if he would design some gates for the 17th century church. He was startled by Spencer's reply. "How can I design gates without walls?" Spencer accepted the commission and designed many gates -- though only two are functional. Just as the poinsettia's flower is outshone by the showier bracts, Spencer's gates are marvelous pieces of sculpture that are often overlooked because of the immense, intriguing, fantasy of the walls.
In his designs for both gates and walls Spencer focused on events revolving around the church's annual festival, Epiphany, when the visit of the three kings to the Christ Child is celebrated. They were guided by the star of Bethlehem and Mexico's star flower is featured.
The grandest of Spencer’s gates is the Poinsettia Gate, with enormous steel bracts and brass flowers. Towering over the gate is the Star of Bethlehem with an interesting twist. Rather than the traditional five-pointed star, Spencer designed a three dimensional Star of David -- made of two intertwined pyramids, one right side up, one upside down. Beneath it are three crowns.
The gate is the beginning of a path laid out in the shape of the cross. The path appropriately leads to and ends at the altar inside the church. Only by including the portion of the path doubling as the aisle in the sanctuary does Spencer's cross have the proportions of a Latin cross. At the end of each arm of the cross are two other gates. It is likely that Spencer’s design was meant to incorporate the poinsettia’s relationship to the crucifixion. The deep crimson color of the poinsettia may be a reminder of the blood of Christ.
These next few weeks leading to Epiphany are appropriate ones to visit Spencer's walls and gates. They are easily accessible to all visitors traveling to Cuernavaca. They are located at the north end of town and easily accessible from both Mexico City highways. If you'd like a locater map please send me an email.
Until two weeks ago Spencer's tomb in the churchyard was covered with an intricate design made of cempazuchitl petals. The seasons pass. From now til Epiphany I'll try to keep a potted poinsettia on Spencer's tombstone in the churchyard. Perhaps you’ll bring one too.