At the church where I grew up, I remember the stairs that led up to the pulpit covered in these beautiful red flowers at Christmas time. As a kid, I had no idea about their history and just believed they were used due to their color and that they were native to Sandusky Ohio where I grew up.
I was obviously wrong.
The Aztec tribe had many practical uses for these plants rather than decorations. They used the flowers to make purple dye that could be used in clothing or even cosmetics.
The sap that came from these plants was also used to treat fevers.
Like many Native American tribes, they used every part of the plant for something.
The pretty red plant was never known as poinsettias by the Aztecs but instead cuetlaxochitl. They would not receive their modern name until the first ambassador from America to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, brought these plants to his greenhouse in South Carolina and began growing them and sending them to other people.
Why Christmas tells of how they turned from a nice greenhouse plant to what they are today:
One of the friends he sent plants to was John Bartram of Philadelphia. At the first Philadelphia flower show, Robert Buist, a plants-man from Pennsylvania, saw the flower, and he was probably the first person to have sold the poinsettias under their botanical, or Latin name, name 'Euphorbia pulcherrima' (it means 'the most beautiful Euphorbia'). They were first sold as cut flowers. It was only in the early 1900s that they were sold as whole plants for landscaping and pot plants. The Ecke family from Southern California was one of, if not the first, to sell them as whole plants, and they're still the main producer of the plants in the USA. It is thought that they became known as Poinsettia in the mid-1830s when people found out who had first brought them to America from Mexico.
Like many Christmas traditions that began as pagan traditions or had no meaning at all, the poinsettia was Christianized.
The red color then symbolizes the blood of Jesus, and the white would represent this purity.
How My Church Used Them
The poinsettia at my church was often bought and placed in memory of a loved one who had passed.
The families would often begin purchasing them shortly after Thanksgiving, and each Sunday after that, the stairs would continue to fill up with these pretty red flowers that reminded us of the upcoming season and that one day we would see our loved ones again.
These are the kind of memories that make Christmas special. While it may not be a traditional use of the poinsettia, it is a nice memory for me from my childhood.