A city councillor in the Canadian city of Victoria returned to city hall recently and found a poinsettia on his desk. The councillor, a non-Christian, made it clear that he didn’t want this “symbol of the Christian faith.” Not only that, he didn’t think public money should be spent to erect Christmas banners or holly-boughs–or even to string Christmas lights on the giant sequoia standing next to city hall. Such decorations, the councillor believes, retain overt Christian symbolism and are thus a violation of the separation between church and state. According to the councillor, any seasonal decorations paid for by public funds and put up in the public square should be inclusive. The city council, in response, has agreed to meet in the coming year to review their practices.
I wonder how many people actually look at a poinsettia today and, like the disgruntled councillor, see a “symbol of the Christian faith.” Until the councillor raised his issue with the poinsettia, I was unaware that the plant (and it’s the red leaves of the plant, not the flower) had any particular religious significance. I assumed it was the plant’s vivid red colour, plus the fact that it blooms in December, that accounted for its popularity at this time of year. Red and Christmas seem to go together: think Santa’s suit, Rudolph’s nose, holly berries. The councillor, however, is correct: there is a religious connection. In Mexico, where the plant is indigenous, poinsettias are called Flores de Noche Buena, ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’, in other words, Christmas Eve flowers. Early Mexican Christians thought that the shape of the leaves of the plant resembled the Star of Bethlehem and tthat the red colour symbolized the blood of Christ.
It was America’s first ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, who is responsible for bringing the stunning red plant to the US in 1828. A keen botanist, he discovered the plant in southern Mexico.
The plant is now found in an array of colours–from red to coral to pink to white. And then there are all the poinsettias tinted blue and purple. Given all the colours of poinsettias that are now available, that spiritual connection between the flower and the Star of Bethlehem and the blood of Christ is long gone.
The councillor doesn’t just have poinsettias in his sights, however: he wants the Christian element in all the city’s seasonal decorations ‘dialed back’. This ‘dialing back’: It’s already happened with language. Christmas is now ‘the festive season’ or ‘winterlude’ or ‘festival of light’. The correct Christmas greeting is ‘Happy Holidays’. It’s the same with music. Radio stations and stores keep to the same limited repertoire of ‘secular’ Christmas pop numbers. If one does happen to hear a traditional Christmas carol, it is an instrumental rendition–no words, as that would expose the Christian element in the song.
What would a secular symbol look like? What symbol would appeal to everyone, and offend no one, in today’s multi-cultural society? A snowflake? Cold, ephemeral. Just doesn’t have the warmth of a star or a lighted evergreen tree. Creating a new inclusive symbol: Not an easy thing to do.
No more poinsettias, no more holly boughs, no more lighted Christmas trees in the public square? “No way,” responded the councillor’s fellow citizens when they heard what he had in mind. (I wonder if he anticipated the scale of the backlash.) As the councillor’s fellow citizens made clear: Those who celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25–and those who don’t (undoubtedly the majority now)–continue to want their city aglow with shimmering lights and brightly-decorated trees–and red poinsettias.