The Story of Pepita and the Poinsettia

Christmas flower poinsettia with gift box and baby boots on table

With their cheerful red leaves, winter flowering, and resilient nature, poinsettias are the perfect plant for adding a splash of colour at Christmas. Unlike the holly and the ivy, poinsettias are a relatively new addition to Britain’s Christmassy plant collection, but they’ve quickly made themselves at home.

Poinsettias are native to Central America, They grow most abundantly in southern Mexico, where a sweet little story is told about how the poinsettia got both its lovely red leaves and its association with Christmas. The story goes like this:

Pepita’s Tale

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Pepita. She was very poor, but she had a kind heart.

One December, everyone in her village was heading to the Christmas Eve service. The Christmas Eve service was a big, colourful, and lavish event. People would dress up in their very best clothes and bring expensive gifts for the baby Jesus.

Some villagers used this as an opportunity to show how very fine their clothes were and how much they could afford to give, but others – like Pepita – were genuinely pious. Sadly, the people with the fancy clothes and guaudy gifts could be quite judgemental about what others had to offer.

As Pepita headed to the chapel she was very sad. She was walking barefoot because she could not even afford shoes – let alone a present for the baby Jesus. Her cousin, Pedro, tried to console her.

“It does not matter how big your gift is”, he said, “the important thing is that you love the baby Jesus. He will like any gift from someone who loves him, however small! And if you have no physical gift, your presence can be the gift!”

But Pepita could not bring herself to attend the service with no gift, so she bent to pick some weeds from the side of the road. It was winter, so they weren’t even flowering, but they still had some leaves. “Better than nothing”, she said to herself.

Pepita got to the chapel and all the rich people in their finery scoffed at her bare feet, ragged clothes and bundle of weeds. But when she laid her offering at the Nativity scene, those humble weeds suddenly transformed. Those drab little weeds doubled in size and turned a bright, living red which outshone all the other gifts. Tiny white flowers sparkled in their centre.

Everyone in the chapel was astonished. But the priest knew that they had witnessed both a miracle. Coming to inspect the plant, he interpreted what they had seen. The red leaves, he told the congregation, represented the blood of Christ. The white flowers represented the purity of the Virgin Mary. And the shape in which the leaves were arranged represented the Star of Bethlehem. These flowers, he said, were ‘Flores de Noche Buena’ – ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’.

The legend does not say what happened to Pepita, but we can be sure that her fellow villagers never looked down on her again after that.

An ancient plant

Obviously, poinsettia plants predate Christianity in Mexico by a great many centuries. The Aztecs used the leaves to make a purple dye and the sap for thickening medicines. But it’s still a nice story. Think of poor, kind Pepita when you purchase your Christmas poinsettia!

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