The Common Good

The "War" on Christmas: And Then They Came for the Poinsettias

Forget about that creche on the town green or the menorah outside the public library that the nice folks from Lubavitch Chabad will light for the first time tonight.

Pointsettia. Image via http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/4170977646
Pointsettia. Image via http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/4170977646

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Now the Special Ops Humbug Unit of the War on Christmas has come for ... our flowers. Well, our shrubbery, technically.

Earlier this month, the principal of a grade school in Stockton, Calif., notified his faculty by memo that, in light of multicultural, pluralistic makeup of the community, they were not allowed to decorate their classrooms with any items that might be too religious-specific — including poinsettias.

Oh, cheese and biscuits. Seriously?

According to FOX News (aka Headquarters of the Lord's Resistance Army against the War on Christmas), yes:

Controversy is embroiling a California town over allegations that elementary school teachers have been told they cannot display poinsettias or Santa Claus in their classroom over fears that it might offend people.

“District office would like to remind everyone when displaying holiday decorations in and around school to be mindful no association to any religious affiliation i.e. Santa, poinsettias, Christmas trees, etc.,” read a document obtained by News 10 in Sacramento that was reportedly sent to teachers at Claudia Landeen Elementary School in Stockton, CA.

The same document said holiday decorations like snowmen and snowflakes were appropriate for grade school classrooms.

Tom Uslan, the superintendent of the Lincoln Unified School District, told News 10 “there is a myriad of religious affiliations (in the community) … we don’t want a pervasive theme of a class to be representing one religious affiliation.”

I could understand banning the red (or white or blotchy pink) plants from the classroom because they're ugly, but to ban Euphorbia pulcherrima for religious reasons seems like a bit of a stretch.

However, a little research (thanks, Wikipedia!) shows that there is a religious connection between poinsettias and Christmas.

For instance, according to Wikipedia:

In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, the plant is called Cuitlaxochitl (from cuitlatl, residue, and xochitl, flower) meaning "flower that grows in residues or soil." The Aztecs used the plant to produce red dye and as an antipyretic medication. Today it is known in Mexico and Guatemala as "Noche Buena", meaning Christmas Eve. In Spain it is known as "Flor de Pascua", meaning "Easter flower". In both Chile and Peru, the plant became known as "Crown of the Andes".

The plant's association with Christmas began in 16th century Mexico, where legend tells of a young girl who was too poor to provide a gift for the celebration of Jesus' birthday. The tale goes that the child was inspired by an angel to gather weeds from the roadside and place them in front of the church altar. Crimson "blossoms" sprouted from the weeds and became beautiful poinsettias. From the 17th century, Franciscan friars in Mexico included the plants in their Christmas celebrations. The star-shaped leaf pattern is said to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, and the red color represents the blood sacrifice through the crucifixion of Jesus.... In the United States, December 12 is National Poinsettia Day.

There may be a popular cultural tradition that we (collectively, in some sense) have connected with Christmas, but it doesn't mean that the plant has any inherent religious affiliation or meaning. At least no more so than Frosty the Snowman or, say, potato latkes do.

(As an aside, in that Stockton grammar school, Santa was too religious, but Frosty the Snowman was OK. No word on the potato pancake ruling. Arbitrary much?)

Now I'm no fan of poinsettias, any more than I am a fan of the lutefisk that my best friend's Swedish family insists on eating on Christmas Eve. But I respect the fact that each, however repellant, are a cultural touchstone for some folks as they celebrate Christmas and/or the holiday season.

Apart from poison ivy, oak or sumac, or flowers that might cause an allergic reaction (lilacs, for instance), the only plants that should be banned from public schools are of the man-eating variety:

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Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. She is the author of several books, including The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers and her new release, BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @godgrrl.

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