Tahlequah Daily Press

December 19, 2012

Poinsettias, yule logs infused with tradition

Special Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Every season has a flower, and during December, poinsettias and the Christmas cactus, with its multi-colored blooms, take center stage.

Christmas decorations include more than a tree with twinkling lights. Swags of live greenery around doorways and across mantles, pops of color from red poinsettias, and even a yule log are traditional.

Poinsettias are flowers most associated with Christmas. Though usually red, they can also be found in creamy white and other shades. Their tropical nature makes them happiest in a dry and sunny location, with no breezes.

Many people think the bright petals of poinsettias are the flowers, but those are actually leaves, called bracts, according to theflowerexpert.com. In fact, the small, green or yellow petals at the center of the leaves are the flowers.

From Central America and Mexico, poinsettias are subtropical plants. They will not likely survive night temperatures below 50 degrees, the website states, and daytime temperatures warmer than 70 degrees will shorten their lifespan.

Leah Trapp, of A Bloom, said because they are tropical, poinsettias don’t want to be by a door where they get bursts of cold air.

“They like warm and moisture. Don’t let the soil get very dry,” Trapp said. “They like the sunshine and to be warm.”

In their native habitat, they can grow up to 16 feet tall and bloom in shades of peach, pink, cream, lemon, red and white and gold-splashed leaves, the website says. Mexican poinsettias are usually bright red.

Poinsettia history is colorful like the blooms. The website says while it was considered a symbol of purity by ancient Aztecs, the poinsettia was later adopted by Mexico’s early Christians as their Christmas Eve flower. For some people, the star-shaped bracts at the center of the flower symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem.

How poinsettias came to be associated with Christmas is explained at the website as a Mexican legend: “A child who could not afford a gift to offer to Christ on Christmas Eve picked some weeds from the side of a road. The child was told that a humble gift, if given in love, would be acceptable in God’s eyes. When brought into the church, the weeds bloomed into red and green flowers and the congregation felt that they had witnessed a Christmas miracle.”

Eventually, the plant was introduced to the U.S. by a former ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel R. Poinsett, for whom the plant is now named.

Trapp said poinsettias can “bleed to death” with their sap.

“If a leaf breaks, they’ll bleed to death with the white, sappy stuff. Put a little dab of dirt on the spot to stop the bleeding,” Trapp said.

To keep already-cut greens fresh, Trapp said, “all you can really do is mist them with water.”

Master gardener Barbara Partak’s best advice is to not overwater plants brought indoors to winter over, especially poinsettias.

“In the winter, they want to rest. I only water them if they’re looking limp,” she said.

Partak has been growing poinsettias in the summer in her yard in a shady spot for the past three years. She leaves them in their pots.

“They grow well if they’re planted in the shade and kept moist,” Partak said. “I cut them back and they get really full. In the South and out West, they’re huge, like bushes.”

As nights get longer and colder, she brings them into the garage to winter over with other plants, usually around Nov. 1.

“They need the dark and cooler nights to get the red color,” Partak said.

She used to bring them in the house, but she tends to overwater then.

Another tradition is the yule log, a long-lasting log that is burned on Christmas Eve, according to www,thehistoryofchristmas.com.

Like most traditions, its origin dates back to a festival of a season and fertility – in this case, Midwinter of Norsemen, drinking “yule” and watching the fire burning in the home hearth. European cultures attribute beneficial magic to the yule log, which was kept burning at least 12 hours and up to 12 days, the website says.

“The ceremonies and beliefs associated with the yule log’s sacred origins are closely linked to health, productivity, and fruitfulness,” the website says.

In Yugoslavia, just before dawn on Christmas Eve, folks cut the yule log and carried it into the house at twilight. They decorated the wood with colored silks and flowers, then doused it with wine and an offering of grain.

French families in the Provence region would go together, singing as they went to cut their yule logs. Their songs asked for blessings on their crops, flocks and herds.

“The people of Provençal called their yule log the ‘trefoire’ and with great ceremony, carried the log around the house three times and christened it with wine before it was set ablaze,” said the website.

Oxen or horses were used in England to drag home the cut yule log, with people singing as they walked along beside their animals. They, too, decorated the log, with evergreens, sprinkling it with grain or cider before lighting.

All the European cultures celebrating with a yule log saved a piece of the wood to light the next year’s log with. The ashes they scattered over the fields to bring fertility. Some believed if the ashes were put into wells, they would sweeten and purify the water, in charms to keep vermin off their cattle or hailstorms away, the website said.

All the cultures enjoyed the warmth of the hard-burning log for themselves and their homes, which is what those of us who continue the tradition look forward to.