The poinsettia’s last red leaf is fading fast. When I received the plant a couple of weeks before Christmas as a gift from a coworker, it was fully crowned with crimson, with a skirt of more modest green leaves below.
Typically the plant would have gotten tossed in the trash along about New Year’s, but it looked so pretty sitting on the corner of my desk that I allowed it to remain. I have given it no special care, only watering it once a week along with the other office plants. As weeks passed, one leaf dropped, then another, but even at Easter the poinsettia retained its beauty. The coworker who gave me the plant noted with amazement that it likely would last until Mother’s Day; that holiday came and went, and now I am thinking that the final red leaf may fall along about Independence Day.
The poinsettia is native to Mexico, where the Aztecs used the plant to produce a red dye and also to combat fever. It was introduced to the United States in 1825 by Joel Roberts Poinsett, from whom it gets its common name. Today, poinsettias are the most popular Christmas plant; about $60 million worth are sold in the six weeks leading up to the holiday. In Mexico, the plant is known as Flor de Nochebuena, or the Christmas Eve Flower; we see in its star-shaped leaf pattern a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem, which led the Wise Men to the place where Jesus lay. A 16th-century Mexican legend tells of a girl who had no money lamenting of being unable to bring a gift to celebrate the Nativity at her church, but an angel told her to collect some weeds, and when the girl placed them in front of the altar they turned into poinsettias, with crimson blooms.
This story reflects the promise of Christmas, during which we commemorate a homeless babe born in a stable who nevertheless is the Savior of the world. After Christmas Day, however, the joy of the season tends to fade under the strain of a world where weeds seem to outnumber flowers; where the cruelty of modern-day Herods reigns instead of the peace proclaimed on that holy night so long ago.
The poinsettia on my desk reminds me of a story I wrote many years ago, about a motorcycle group in California that celebrated what they called Christmas in July. For this benefit they rode their Harley-Davidsons to a home where parents in dire circumstances could leave their children for a short time. The place was not an orphanage, it was a safe place for children while the parents sorted out whatever circumstances caused them to be unable to provide care during that period. Still, even knowing that their parents would return, the children could not have had an easy time of it, and the arrival of a hundred roaring motorcycles bearing gifts could be likened to bringing flowers to those who might have been seeing only weeds.
In the same way, I think, we can be Wise Men to each other in these months that the Church deems Ordinary Time. We need not bear gifts as costly as gold and frankincense and myrrh, but even the poorest among us can offer a kind word and a smile, which can brighten the day for those wrapped in drudgery.
While the crimson leaves of my poinsettia have all but faded, a dozen new leaves have sprouted to take their place. If they are to turn red, along about September the plant will require about 12 hours of darkness each day. This is a reminder that we too need a time of dormancy, of rest, of darkness. We cannot sustain the Christmas joy; it, like the flower, naturally fades to a murmur at this time of year, although we must take care that it not disappear altogether so that it can once again burst forth in fullness at the proper season.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. She can be reached at email@example.com.