Hey, you! Yeah, you there with the artificial Christmas tree! Doing things the American way, eh? Truth, justice and lots of Christmas tree ornaments festooning the tree lit up like a Roman candle. But do you know why we put up the artificial Christmas tree (or the real one)? Ah, and that traditional Christmas flower, the poinsettia...what do you know about the poinsettia? Put down the eggnog and switch off the football for a moment and read about a couple of men responsible for American holiday traditions. It'll give you something to talk about underneath the mistletoe.
The history of the Christmas tree is long, representing some thirteen centuries of tradition. (As opposed to that artificial Christmas tree, which, in its modern form, was created in the 1960s.) The tree itself is typically an evergreen; as the name belies, the tree has since ancient times been thought to make an appropriate symbol for immortality, eternality, etc. The Egyptians, Romans, Druids, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, Germans, Spaniards and Slovaks all used evergreens in such festivities taking place around the time of the winter solstice, to represent the perseverance of life. Present-day Lebanon has the tree on its national flag for similar reasons.
For some time (indeed, since the Old Testament's Jeremiah), traditions of the Christmas tree and concomitant Christmas tree ornaments were thought to be pagan rites, but this is today thought to not have been so. The idea took off in America after the highly controversial act of Pastor Henry Schwan in Cleveland, who actually chopped down, set and decorated a real, not artificial Christmas tree in a church, representing the first time this had been done in America.
The poinsettia is a native of southern Mexico originally known as "cuetlaxochitl" to the Aztecs; these indigenous people used the flower to produce purple dyes. Today, the plant can be exploited for its sap, the building block for none other than latex. The more pronounceable name (if remaining damnably difficult to spell) was given to it from its first American cultivator, President James Madison's ambassador to Mexico Joel Roberts Poinsett. The first United States Ambassador to Mexico, Poinsett fell in love with the red flower when stationed in Mexico in the 1820s. He brought a number of the plants back to his South Carolina home, where they flourished.
In Mexican folklore around the area most fruitfully producing poinsettias lies the heart of the legend of the Christmas flower. A long time ago, people there came to church on Christmas Eve bearing all the flowers they could hold. The blooms would fill the baby Jesus' manger. Young Jose, unfortunately, was too poor to buy any flowers outright and so concluded he wouldn't be able to attend the church service. In his shame, he cried. An angel then appeared to him, telling him to pick some weeds by the side of the road and to continue on to the church. Once arriving there, Jose placed the weeds reverently in the manger. They were transformed into the brilliant ruby-red blooms we now know. Today, the flower is locally known as "La Flor de la Noche Buena," or, "The Flower of the Holy Night."
Meanwhile, north of the border, La Flor garners eighty-five percent of all holiday season sales; apparently, even those purchasing an artificial Christmas tree can't tolerate an artificial Christmas flower.