As the wheel of the year makes its final turn and begins a new cycle, most plants have faded but evergreens live up to their name. They were considered sacred because they didn’t seem to die each year. Bringing evergreens indoors embodied the reborn spirit of the Green Man. With sacred trees, mistletoe, and other plants taken into the home, it is no accident that this is a magical time of year.

As a time of transformation, Yule celebrates the return of the sun/son, which brings hope and the promise of ongoing life. While the Celts had established Samhain as the beginning of the New Year, tenth-century Norse Pagans changed their new year to Yule to coincide with the solar cycle.

Although the poinsettia has had little recognition for magical use, its red and green colors fit with the scheme of the season representing ongoing life. It is also appropriate for the Yule altar because it resembles a brilliant sunburst welcoming the return of the light.

While we may think of the poinsettia as having big red flowers, the red “petals” are actually modified leaves called bracts that help direct insects to the flowers. The real flowers are the little yellow clusters in the center of the bracts. Also known as the Christmas flower and flame leaf, the poinsettia is a houseplant for most of us, but in its native Mexico, it’s a perennial shrub that can reach ten to fifteen feet tall.

The plant’s common name is in honor of Joel Poinsett, the American ambassador to Mexico who introduced it into the United States in the mid-1800s. Its botanical name is Euphorbia pulcherrima. The species name, pulcherrima, is Latin and means “most beautiful.” (Allen Coombes, Dictionary of Plant Names, 1985, pg. 139.)

The Aztecs cultivated the poinsettia for its brilliant red color, which symbolized purity, and the need for sacrifice. In addition to rituals, it had a few medicinal uses. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the poinsettia was a commodity for trade in the markets of Tenochtitlan, present day Mexico City.

According to legend, seventeenth-century Christian friars added the plant to their nativity processions. This began the poinsettia’s association with Christmas and a range of little drummer boy-like miracle stories.

Poinsettias and Magic

While the red poinsettia symbolizes the returning sun, the color red also represents the life-giving blood of the Goddess, her power of regeneration, and the promise of renewal to come in the spring. As part of your Yule ritual, remove a red bract and hold it between your hands as you make a wish for the coming year. Leave it on your altar until New Year’s Eve, and then burn it as you visualize the wish you made at Yule.

Red is still the most popular color for poinsettias, but they also range from pinkish to salmon to purple, yellowish to white, as well as marbled and speckled. Use a pink poinsettia in a spell if you want to attract a little romance into your holidays. Of course, pink also represents universal love as we seek to spread peace and goodwill at this time of year. If you enjoy winter, place a white poinsettia in your bedroom and dream of snow. Because poinsettias disappear from the shops by the end of the year, they serve as a reminder of the magic of Yule.

More About the Plant

If you have broken a leaf from a poinsettia, you know that its stems have a thick, milky sap. It can cause skin irritation, especially if you have a latex allergy. However, despite the urban legends that persisted for years, the plant is not poisonous. While ingesting any part of it may cause nausea or vomiting in a human or pet, it is not fatal.

To keep a poinsettia looking good during the holidays, keep the soil evenly moist and place it where it will get bright, indirect light. It doesn’t like drafts or overly warm houses. Even if it loses it leaves, don’t toss it out, it will re-sprout and is worth keeping for it green foliage in the home or garden.

Getting a poinsettia to bloom again takes some diligence. Starting in late September, it needs fourteen hours of darkness every day. Even one or two slip-ups can break the charm. As you put it away each afternoon, say or chant:

“While Yule may seem far away;

I call plant devas forth this day.

Bring your magic and green world power;

To help this plant, once again flower.”

 I have only gotten a poinsettia to re-bloom once, but it was a fun challenge. I usually keep them until spring and then use them as annuals to add interest to my garden. I think fairies are rather attracted to them, too. Poinsettias in the garden provide a reminder of the turning of the year and the special magic that can be found in every season.