Bitter bouquet

A poinsettia sparks resentment in the suburbs, and peace seems impossibly far

Thanksgiving was almost over and the crowd of guests was starting to thin. Over the course of the evening we shared lively conversation, gorged on scrumptious food and relished the satisfied feeling that all was well with the world. Or, at least, all was well in our small corner of the world.

My husband and kids and I were out-of-town guests, and during the farewells our host followed us out to the car. As we lingered on the sidewalk he suddenly began complaining about the gift one of his guests had brought to the gathering. At previous Thanksgivings the fellow had arrived with a bottle of wine, but this year he showed up with a poinsettia. The problem is, poinsettias are associated with Christmas, and the host and his family are Jewish and celebrate Hanukkah.

As I listened to him vent his displeasure, I thought about the elderly man in question. I’d chatted with him briefly (I’ll refer to him as “Lou”) and found no evidence of a sly, mean-spirited nature. He had come as the guest of another family member and wasn’t even a close friend of the host. At one point, Lou and the buddy who had invited him shared a story about their recent trip to Las Vegas. It was a typical tale of two 70-plus gents out on the town drinking highballs and flirting with young, attractive cocktail waitresses, and it generated the usual obligatory laughter from everyone listening.

Later, back in our hotel, I pondered the deeper implications of our host’s resentment. I’m not a religious person, but I’m well aware that the couple who threw our Thanksgiving bash are proud of their Jewish heritage. Obviously their pride is strong enough that a gift of a Christmas plant would be construed as a personal insult.

But surely, I thought, Lou didn’t make a deliberate decision to offend his hosts. Maybe he knew they were Jewish but thought a poinsettia was a generic holiday plant, good for Christians and Jews alike. When I recalled my host’s extreme irritation, however, I doubted that explanation would suffice. I had watched someone who is normally calm and amiable lose his cool over a perceived slam against his religion. Before his tirade was over, he was even making disparaging remarks about Lou’s place of residence (“a sleazy apartment”), hairpiece and sexual orientation.

The following night when we were packing up for the drive home, I caught the latest headlines about Iraq and the escalating violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. The historic feud still was simmering beneath the surface when Saddam Hussein was in power, but with the U.S. led invasion of Iraq and the resulting political upheaval, the rancor between Sunnis and Shiites has exploded into a full-fledged war.

As I listened to the news anchor describe the most recent atrocities, I couldn’t help but reflect on the controversial gift of a holiday poinsettia. It’s a reach to compare battling Sunnis and Shiites to a Jewish suburbanite and his bitterness over a Gentile’s show of disrespect. But his outrage gave me a firsthand look at the sensitive nature of religious belief and how easily anger can flare.

I looked for some evidence that the poinsettia was in fact a nonsectarian holiday gift, but I learned it’s undeniably linked to a Christian legend. The plant is native to Mexico, where it started as a roadside weed, and the story goes that one Christmas Eve a poor young Mexican girl offered it to Jesus at the altar of a Nativity scene. According to the legend, the weed magically transformed into a flamboyant red plant and has been revered as a Christmas symbol ever since. So much for my attempt to bail out poor Lou.

As the holiday season progresses, I’ll look at the poinsettia displays in the grocery stores with less indifference than usual. I believe I’ll feel a slight chill when I catch sight of those garish red plants. A chill that has nothing to do with the temperature outside.