Many things signal that the Christmas season is upon us; the glow of lights on houses, the smell of warm baked goods, annual coffee flavors, shopping and sales, movies on TV, and Christmas music on the radio before Halloween (a federal crime in my opinion). Christmas trees, though, are perhaps the most enigmatic sign the season is here. Right around Thanksgiving we begin seeing the green fur trees arriving at grocery stores and local farms setting up shop, or if you’re one of “those people” setting up the fake tree. However, as you approach the Christmas trees at these stores and stands you often encounter another plant that gets its day in the sun (figuratively and literally as you’ll see) at Christmastime—the Poinsettia.
There’s a lot more than meets the eye with Poinsettias.
Sure, they’re pretty with their bright red leaves—yes, leaves—but besides that they contain a deep truth that applies to all of us. To be able to understand that truth, though, you have to go a bit deeper than their surface beauty and understand Poinsettias themselves. As I sat staring at the two Poinsettias sitting on our own hearth the other night, my inner science nerd reared its head and I spent some time doing just that.
Here’s what I learned…
Originally native to Central America, Poinsettias were first introduced to the United States in the 1820’s by the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico and botanist, Joel Roberts Poinsett—hence their common name. Taken by their beauty he had some of the plants sent back to his home state of South Carolina, from which they proliferated throughout the country. It wasn’t until almost 80 years later, however, Poinsettias became associated with Christmas.
In 1900, while traveling with his family through Los Angeles, a German American named Albert Ecke noticed the red plants throughout the city. Filled with entrepreneurial spirit, Ecke got the ingenious idea to sell the plants—marketing them as “the Christmas plant” because of their red color. He set up little road side stands and the business took off. Within decades the Ecke family cornered the market on Poinsettias, selling over 70% of all Poinsettias in America and creating a lasting Christmas tradition.
But what actually makes Poinsettias red?
First of all we should clarify that the red part of Poinsettias are actually modified leaves called “bracts.” The flowers of the plant are the small and often yellow centers with few petals, from which the leaves radiate. Because of such small flowers, it’s presumed the colored leaves developed to attract pollinators—though, we don’t actually know what pollinates Poinsettias in the wild.
Isn’t science awesome?!… no?… Just me?… Again, science nerd. Sorry, not sorry.
Okay, back to the original question; “what makes Poinsettias red?”
This is where things get a bit more sciencey. I know, what is this school? But stick with me, because you really can’t miss this perspective they provide. I believe it can shift the way you view your past and transform the trajectory of your future.
The leaves of Poinsettias turn red because of something called Photoperiodism. Photoperiodism is when certain proteins called photoreceptor proteins within the plant cell detect seasonal (or forced) light changes. These proteins and the detection they allow help the plant to know when to put its energy into flowering, deepening roots, repairing themselves, and even protecting themselves. They can actually form a circadian clock similar to you and I.
In the wild, this detection begins taking place in the winter when nights are longer. But in nurseries growing Poinsettias for Christmas, starting in October the plants are exposed to periods of total darkness for at least 14 hours a day. When this happens the photoreceptor proteins begin a process of halting the production of, and the extraction of, chloroplast containing cells from the leaves—which we see as green.
As they do this Poinsettias also begin producing pigments called Anthocyanidians—say that five times fast. When the green chloroplast cells are extracted and these commonly red pigments are created, the leaves begin changing color. They’re not just for looks, though. It’s these Anthocyanidians that also aid in DNA repair and protection. However, if the plants are exposed to even the slightest bit of light during their time in the dark, it can interrupt this entire process and the leaves won’t be quite as vibrant as they could’ve been.
And again, not just a little darkness or some darkness here and there, but six to eight weeks of total darkness 14 hours a day!
The same is often true for you and me.
Life, at one point or another, places all of us in the dark.
Sometimes it’s by the consequences of our own actions, sometimes it’s by the actions of others, and other times we just don’t know why. Some people are in it and wonder if they’ll ever get out, and others seem to have avoided it almost altogether, but we all experience it. The question is, what happens when we do?
For many of us fear and frustration overwhelm, sending us deeper into the darkness.
It reminds of how for much of my childhood, like many kids, I was pretty afraid of the dark. I always slept with a light or the TV on. Looking back I think a lot of it had to do with not being able to move or get up and turn a light on if something startled me. If there was light, though, I could see what was going on and knew there was nothing to be afraid of. Similarly, the darkness and hard times in our lives have a way of paralyzing us with worry and fear. We can’t see what’s going on so we just lie there, afraid to move and waiting for it to be over. But God wants to show us something different.
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. Genesis 50:20 (ESV)
You see, God’s intentions are often very different than our’s or the world’s. Just like Poinsettias have to go through the darkness to transform into the beautiful plants we put on display at Christmas, God wants to do the same in us.
This requires us to do something that feels completely unnatural, though—surrender to God, embrace the opportunity in the darkness, and reject fear. When we practice these three abilities we allow ourselves to see the things God wants to show us. We become a disciple in the darkness—learning, developing, and growing. We can cast our fears on Him and begin to be able to see that transformation and goodness—goodness we never could’ve imagined otherwise—are possible through the pain.
My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not lacking in anything. James 1:2-4 (NLT)
But God also makes us a promise in this darkness… it will come to an end.
After their time in the darkness and all the photoreceptor proteins and Anthocyanidians have done their work, Poinsettias are finally ready for their time in the light—Christmas. Each year in the six weeks leading up to Christmas, over 100 million Poinsettias are sold in America for people to display and see their beautiful red leaves. All their struggle and effort finally realizes its purpose. God will do the same with you and I… and I don’t mean selling us as Christmas decorations.
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 1 Peter 5:10 (NIV)
Over 2,000 years ago the very first Christmas was full of waiting and darkness too. A promise had been made, but for 400 years there had been nothing. It seemed as if God had forgotten or changed His mind… and then, Light. In an insignificant small town, to an insignificant small town girl and guy light broke through the darkness and Jesus was born.
Maybe you feel like that right now? You’re stuck in what feels like 400 years of darkness wondering if God has forgotten you or changed His mind. But He hasn’t. Jesus came that first Christmas so that you and I would no longer have to live in the darkness. He would be our Light, shining the way to freedom and joy.
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12 (ESV)
When we accept Jesus as who He is (God and man in one), the perfect life He lived, and the sacrifice and miracle of His death and resurrection, we are joined with this light. It lives within us. He lives within us. No matter how much darkness we experience in this life we always have the Light of Life inside us leading the way through. And more than that, we have the promise of living in the Light for eternity. One day all the pain will be healed for good, all the wrong will be brought to a final justice, and the darkness will be banished forever.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shown. Isaiah 9:2 (ESV)
Let me be clear, this does not mean the darkness won’t come in this life. And it does not minimize the painful, frightening, unfair circumstances in our lives. Rather, it puts them in their proper place. Horrible, yes. But also—if we’re willing to trust God and shift our perspective to that of a Poinsettia—an opportunity to transform and shine the Light of Life from within us, into both our own lives and the entire world.
So from now on, whenever you see the bright red leaves of the Poinsettia, look at them from a fresh perspective. The perspective that when the darkness comes so does the opportunity to transform. The perspective that you don’t have to be afraid of the dark. A perspective of the light and beauty that’s within you, waiting to come out. And the perspective to remind you of the first Christmas when the Light named Jesus came for you, so that you could live in the light for all eternity. This is the perspective of a Poinsettia.
Well, those are my remARCs. I hope they in some way, big or small, might have resonated with you. Whether it made you laugh, cry (I hope not too much), smile, or maybe think about life from a different perspective, I hope you take something away from this article that makes your day even the slightest bit better. I’d love to hear your remARCs as well. Feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment on the My RemARCs Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram pages… unless you hated it. In which case, why are you even still reading this? Hope to see you back here soon. Until then, be well and live remARCably.