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A Transplant Becomes Symbol of U.S. Holiday Season

Author: Jim Estrada
Created: 18 December, 2009
Updated: 13 September, 2023
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3 min read

pointsetta Each year, the holiday season that begins with Thanksgiving Day and runs through New Year’s Day is a time for most U.S. Americans to contemplate their good fortune, demonstrate compassion and concern for one another, and hope for peace on earth.

This time of the year is also a time for reflection.  For the past several years, immigration has dominated center stage across our nation. There are those who cite the growing negative influences transplants are having on “their” society, “their” economy and “their” culture.

As we prepare to celebrate the annual year-end holiday season one such transplant comes to mind: the (kweh-tlah-SOH-cheel), which has come to symbolize the most revered of our nation’s holidays. This particular transplant is a native of Central America and Mexico, and was once part of the botanical gardens that existed throughout the pre-Colombian Azteca Empire. During that era, flora was cultivated for its beauty, as well as practical purposes. The Mexicas (meh-CHEE-kahs), whose culture was adopted by most of the tribes of the Aztec civilization, used the cuetlaxochitl to adorn their environments, cure fevers, and dye clothing and artifacts.

Today, most Latinos know the colorful plant as la flor de la noche buena (the flower of the Holy Night) because its leaves turn a flame-red color during the Christmas season. In the U.S. this transplant has a different name; here it is associated with Joel Robert Poinsett, the Ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s. While in Mexico, Ambassador Poinsett reportedly visited a rural church where the parishioners had decorated the Nativity scene with local, bright red foliage that gave the church a “very elegant and uncommon appearance.” 

Poinsett brought cuttings from these plants to his South Carolina hothouses and introduced la flor de la noche buena to mainstream USA. The “poinsettia” is now commonly recognized as a symbol of our nation’s holiday season. Who could have imagined this shrub-like transplant with reddish leaves (that really aren’t flowers) would become the most popular decorative potted-plant sold in the entire USA?

To most in the U.S. it is seen mainly in its seasonal potted form; however, in its natural environment — that includes much of the Southwestern U.S. — la flor de la noche buena grows up to 10 feet tall. To Mexican and many U.S. Latino Christians la flor de la noche buena remains associated with Christmas — as it has for centuries.

The cuetlaxochitl has come to symbolize the holiday season, first in Mexico and now in the USA. Similarly, the USA has come to symbolize a sanctuary for those seeking equality, opportunity, and access to a better quality of life! If transplants like the poinsettia (and others like avocados, chile peppers, chocolate, corn, peanuts, potatoes and tomatoes) can enrich our nation’s standard of living; consider the contributions the people who originally cultivated these native products can make to our nation’s growth and development.

As we celebrate peace on earth and goodwill towards our fellow man this holiday season, let us remember that all of our non-indigenous ancestors were transplants from foreign lands. This fact alone underscores the value of immigrants to our nation’s past, present, and future progress. Happy Holidays!

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Jim Estrada is a former San Diego television reporter and national corporate marketing executive.  He is the founder and CEO of Estrada Communications Group, a nationally recognized ethnic marketing and communications agency in Austin, TX. “A Transplant Becomes Symbol of U.S. Holiday Season” is excerpted from his upcoming book, “The GIANT Stirs: The ABCs and Ñ of America’s Cultural Evolution.”

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