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Poinsettias, Kings and Latin American Christmas

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Do you like poinsettias? I know I do. I wish my cat did. She's allergic, so if I bring one home, she gets sick. And then I suffer. She's like a petulant child, annoyed because I had the audacity to bring something beautiful into our home only to make her feel sick. But really, aren't poinsettias beautiful, and therefore kind of worth the allergic dangers? Anyway, if you're as into poinsettias as I am, then you might be as interested as I was to learn where they come from.

Latin America.

They're a part of the Christmas tradition throughout Latin America. In fact, they originate from there. The poinsettia is the traditional flower of the holiday season, and this tradition has spread throughout the world. You always see them showing up in markets and flower stores as the holiday season gets in to full swing.

Much like here in North America, Christmas traditions in Latin America flow in from many different channels. There is a rich history of both native roots and influences from the immigrants who became a part of the culture. Christmas in Latin America is a mix of Christian tradition adapted from European countries like Germany, Italy and Spain along with a strong history of the indigenous people of the land. The traditions have similarities to other cultures, but also have their own distinct features.

It's a celebration of life and belief, and it's more than just one day. Christmas starts during the first week of December, with El Dia de Reyes (The Day of Kings) on December 6th. This is the day that gifts are traditionally left for children (rather than Christmas day), generally set by their shoes. In tradition in Latin American countries, the Three Wise Men are actually the givers of gifts during the holiday season, just as they offered up gifts to the new born baby Jesus.

The Three Wise Men are an integral part of the holiday celebration and how they factor in to the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. They traveled together to the manger and offered up gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn child. Luckily, they’ve since expanded their offerings and children receive many other things than that now. The holiday is a celebration of birth and the young baby Jesus, so gifts are generally only given to children and it is a celebration of life.

As in most countries outside of the United States, Santa Claus has only become a more recent addition to the holiday in Latin America, but is far less important than the gifts of the Three Wise Men. After all, giving gifts is kind of what the Three Wise Men are known for. And who wouldn’t want gifts from three people rather than one, right?

Another very important feature of El Dia de Reyes is to eat a Rosca de Reyes (a king’s cake). Hidden inside the Rosca de Reyes is a small effigy of the baby Jesus. The hidden effigy symbolized that the birthplace of the baby Jesus had to be hidden from King Herod to spare his life. Traditionally, whoever finds the effigy inside the cake is then obligated to host a celebration on Dia de la Candalaria, the official end to the holiday season which doesn’t take place until February 2nd.

The celebration typically consists of the person who is hosting must make tamales for their guests. The baby Jesus from the Nativity set is often dressed this day and held up to be celebrated. This part of the holiday coincides with a tradition in many European countries, called Candelmas. This holiday is often celebrated by also eating local foods (for example, in France they eat crepes on this day). It also coincides with Groundhogs day in the United States, which seems kind of odd until you think about the fact that both celebrations being the end or changing of a season.

Tianguis Markets start opening up (essentially street markets) in the month of November, selling goods specifically related to the Christmas season. Poinsettias are a major item at these markets. But most important is the Nativity scene, often displayed in homes, offices and public places. The Nativity is incredibly important in Latin American culture, to display the scene of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and the Three Wise Men arriving to witness his birth. The set is similar to North American Nativity sets, with the Three Wise Men, Mary & Joseph and farm animals around the manger. The star directing the Three Wise Men to the birth of Jesus is generally lit up as a spotlight on the Nativity set.

One interesting feature is that Nativity sets don't include the baby Jesus until Noche Buena, also called Buenanoche, or the good night, which is Christmas Eve, the most important night of the holiday. The baby Jesus now starts appearing in the Nativity sets throughout, generally much bigger than the other figures in the set (often close to a life-size baby), and these Nativity sets generally stay up until the end of the season on February 2nd. The night starts by attending Misa de Gallo (Midnight Mass). Then the celebration continues by familiess hosting a large feast, generally with Roasted Pig as the centerpiece of the meal. This is the largest meal of the holiday and the high point of the celebrations.

So maybe I’ll check by my shoes this December 6th and see if there’s something there. I know I’m not a child any more, but I feel like a newborn to these traditions. Does that count? Will they leave me a poinsettia this year? I know Santa never got me that motorcycle or jet pack I asked for, like, every year. Maybe the Three Wise Men will come through for me. After all, a poinsettia is maybe a more reasonable request, and would look great on my desk at work (and not at home with my allergic cat).

J. Edwin Bishop is a well respected freelance writer from Southern Minnesota. reach him at

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