I have always been fascinated with poinsettias. I grew up in southern California where poinsettias are used as a landscaping plant year round, kind of like a day lily here in Wisconsin. It was not always a scrub plant found along ditches and in gardens. In ancient times the plant was highly valuable. It was used to make both dye and medicine. The plant contains a unique sap, which has long been used for healing, and in more recent times, used to make latex.

Poinsettias are originally from Mexico. The first ambassador to Mexico, a man named Joel Robert Poinsett, first saw the plant in 1828 and sent some seeds back to his plantation in South Carolina. He began growing and sharing the beautiful red leafed plant with master gardeners all across the nation. By the beginning of the Civil War, the poinsettia came to bear his name and represent true giving at Christmas.

Why poinsettias for Christmas? I am glad you asked! While Ambassador Poinsett was living in Mexico, he attended a Christmas Mass at a tiny church filled with the beautiful red plants. He was so moved by the legend of Pepita and the miracle of the Christmas flower that he devoted his life to sharing the legend and making the poinsettia a symbol of God’s love and sacrificial giving among God’s people at Christmastime. Today, something special would be missing if we celebrated Christmas without poinsettias.

Let me tell you Pepita’s story, which has come to be known as the The Legend of the Poinsettia.

Pepita was a young Mexican orphan girl, living in severe trials and extreme poverty. She believed she had no value, was forgotten, outcast and worthless. Pepita had no resources or way to provide for herself, so she served others in the village doing the dirtiest jobs no one else wanted to do. She was mocked and scorned as a worthless little beggar. I can only imagine she was also abused, taken advantage of and violated because she was an innocent with no one to protect her.

As everyone in the village prepared for the annual Christmas church festivities, the villagers began to talk of the lavish gifts they would bring to the Baby Jesus on Christmas Eve. This made Pepita sad because she had nothing to offer. Her heart longed to have a worthy gift to offer the Baby Jesus at the church service. Her guilt and shame consumed her and she determined that she did not even have the right to attend the service. If she had nothing to give, surely she was not worthy to be in the presence of God.

Pedro, a young boy from the village, saw her state of distress and tried to encourage Pepita. He reminded her that it was not the size of the gift that made it valuable, but the willingness of a surrendered heart that wanted to give. “Even the smallest gift has great worth when it is offered willingly to God,” he explained.

Pepita pondered this in her heart and reached way down deep inside to gather up some courage. She headed to the church afraid to be rejected but somehow knowing she must attend the service in the tiny church.

On her way, still empty handed with no gift to give, she knelt to pray for a miracle. Her tears fell on some ugly little weeds at her feet. She gently picked them and taking a dirty red string from her pocket, she crafted a haphazard bouquet.

Climbing the church steps past the mocking voices of the finely dressed villagers, she pushed open the large wooden doors to face the hateful gaze of the people gathered. Pepita felt embarrassed and ashamed that she had come, but felt compelled to give her gift to God. The ragged weeds and her tattered clothes among the richly dressed people and ornate decorations was confirmation to her heart that she had no value and did not belong anywhere near the King of Kings. Her heart pounded in her chest and her cheeks burned red. But little Pepita was brave as she continued up the aisle tightly gripping the drooping weeds.

She quietly knelt at the altar. She could not control her tears. She cried out to God as she laid her pitiful offering in front of the nativity scene. “I have nothing to bring you Jesus,” she cried. “I am less than nothing. I am worthless and have no value. I have no right to even come to you, but I love you, Lord, and I could not stay away. Please forgive me.” As her tears once again dropped gently upon the dying weeds, the bouquet burst into a bloom of bright red flowers. Gasps filled the room as the villagers witnessed the miracle.

The legend tells us Pepita found her value in the Christ Child that day as God took her dismal offering and turned it into something beautiful. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the ‘Flores de Noche Buena’, or ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’.

I have three poinsettia plants in my living room which are good reminders of how we see ourselves and what we believe we have to offer. The first poinsettia is a dead stump of a once thriving plant – testimony to my black thumb. It started out beautiful, full, blooming, and filled with life. Because I neglected it, abused it, and generally forgot about it, it died. I brought it back to life and it died again. My dead poinsettia does not have much value as it sits here right now. No one would fault me for discarding it completely. Can you relate to that in your own life? Beaten down, neglected, wounded, and hurt resulting in a life that is withered, worn, and fairly hopeless. This plant is no longer recognizable as the poinsettia it was created to be. I have hope that I can revive it again and it will eventually bloom in spite of what it has endured.

The next plant is not actually a poinsettia at all. It is a manufactured silk replica. It looks good year round, is always in bloom and resistant to harm of any kind. No matter what happens to it, it will always look the same. Not even I can hurt this plant! The problem is that it may look good on the outside, but it has no life. It is only a substitute for the real thing. Many of us go through life like this, making sure we look good on the outside but feeling lifeless on the inside. We can neither wilt nor bloom; we just go through life looking pretty good, wondering if we are created to do more; wondering if we have some greater value to offer someone else.

The third poinsettia is an amazing thing of beauty grown in perfect conditions with tender care and daily nurturing. Master gardeners watched closely to make sure it was thriving. Finally, when it was ready and deemed valuable, it was shipped out to fulfill its ultimate purpose. To bloom and delight others with the gift of its beauty is the sole purpose of this plant.

Would our lives look different if we could recognize what we were created for, how we were designed, and then actually went out into the world and lived out our purpose? Would our relationships with family, friends, and others look different if we lived like the fully blooming poinsettia? Would we live more beautiful lives if we willingly surrendered our fears and insecurities and, instead, offered what we have to those around us fearlessly and with hope?

From Pepita’s story in The Legend of the Poinsettia, we can learn to surrender everything we are, no matter what we think of what we have to offer. When we do this willingly and courageously, we can offer ourselves as magnificent gifts to those around us.

Action Steps: Take Five

How does the Legend of the Poinsettia resonate with you? Is anything preventing you from living out your purpose by offering yourself willingly and courageously to the people in your life? Consider these action steps to start new conversations with others about how you see yourself and what you have to offer.

1. Which poinsettia example can you most relate to in your relationships? Wilting, dead, fake, or in full bloom? Show this article to your friends and family and ask them what they think. Use the examples to start a new discussion.

2. Who or what has defined your value as a person? What words or messages do you believe about yourself that may be affecting your relationships with others? Try sharing those thoughts with them and ask them to do the same.

3. Name at least three things you have to offer those around you. Name the three gifts you have to give and then decide who you can give them to. Ask a loved one to do this with you.

4. In what ways are you blooming? Have you continued to grow as a person? What struggles have you overcome in your life? How did you go about doing that? Share those thoughts with someone close to you.

5. What has your faith journey looked like? Do you believe you are a physical, emotional, and spiritual being? What does that mean to you? Do you know the Christmas Story? What does offering a gift to the Baby in the manger mean to you? Have an honest discussion about faith with someone you respect. If you need answers, contact local clergy to ask your hard questions.