Beyond  /  Origin Story

Poinsettia Day, the Monroe Doctrine, and U.S.-Mexican Relations

The troubled history of the famous poinsettia plant.

Every holiday season, at least for the last 70 years or so, the red and green plant that most Americans associate with Christmas is everywhere. In fact, since 2002, December 12 has been known a Poinsettia Day, created by Congress to honor the passing of Paul Ecke, Jr., who helped commercialize the plant in the United States in the middle of the twentieth century. The lawmakers who created the holiday probably did not stop to reflect on the troubled start to Mexican-U.S. relations.

The date itself was chosen to commemorate the 1851 death of Joel Roberts Poinsett, the nation’s first ambassador to Mexico. In the late 1820s, he took the plant—known as the cuetlaxochitl in Nahua and the flor de nochebuena in Spanish—from the Mexican state of Guerrero and introduced it to Americans, who marveled at its foliage and began calling it the poinsettia.

The “holiday” is especially significant in 2023. Ten days prior marks the 200th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine, a foreign policy announcement that set the stage for two centuries of rocky relations between the U.S. and Mexico. This announcement, written by Secretary of State John Adams and buried in James Monroe’s presidential address to Congress, claimed the entire hemisphere for the United States. The following year, the Monroe administration appointed Poinsett as the nation’s first ambassador to Mexico.

This appointment was an inauspicious start to diplomatic relations between Mexico and the United States. Poinsett arrived in Mexico in the spring of 1825, and almost immediately instigated a general distrust of American interference. His first stop was San Juan de Ulúa, the last site of Spanish military occupation in Mexico, to meddle in the negotiations between a Mexican and Spanish commander.

While he did nothing to change the outcome of Spain’s surrender, he set the tone.

Next, he visited the estate of a wealthy Philadelphia merchant to discuss Americans’ financial claims on the Mexican government, as well as opportunities for investing in mining ventures south of Mexico City.

Poinsett also helped establish a Masonic Lodge specifically to organize opposition to the ruling centralista party, which he saw as antithetical to U.S. interests because of its close ties to British business. When this rising opposition had some political successes, Poinsett used his Masonic connections to secure favorable plots of land for himself and his friends and establish an American-based mining company.