Something is very wrong. We are entering the Christmas season and my back is not out. Always, at this time of the year, I am forced to endure some sort of travail which leaves me so crippled that my New Year’s resolution is to simply stop breathing until the pain goes away. I still have not got the Christmas tree into the house and there is the woodpile to move into the shed, so there is still hope, but traditionally it has been something Dr. Wifey has done to me.

These attacks have taken many forms over the years. Once it was taking the family to a Christmas pageant at school in a slashing ice storm. We lived on top of a mountain, it was just raining at the school but on the way home, we had to stop so I could put the chains on our old van. The second my feet hit the ground, they both slipped, depositing me on my back with a huge force, after which I found myself sliding down the road at ever increasing speed until I came to a turn, whereupon I bashed through the snowbank and found my new sport of body luge brought up short by a medium-sized oak. After crawling back up the hill and crawling around to get the chains on, I found myself unable to get out of the truck when we did get home.

Another memorable year found me trying to get a 300-pound box, containing a rather delicate yet expensive present she had chosen for a daughter, into a compact pickup with a cap. The odd shape of the box made it impossible to simply slide it straight in. My solution was to balance one end on the tailgate, tip the box almost to 90 degrees, shove it in partway, then let the back down to rest on a shopping cart until I could shove it the rest of the way straight into truck.

The key was the absolute immovability of the cart. Dr. Wifey was tasked with holding the cart still. My view of it was obscured by the huge box. I got the box tipped and started into the truck, let the box down ... and found no shopping cart, just me and my awkwardly bent back to stop the item from crashing to flinders. I overcame gravity with just a few inches to spare, deadlifted it back up and finally shoved it far enough into the truck to take the pressure off. Turns out she had decided I did not really need the cart and was busy returning it to the store.

In keeping with my thus far non-aching back, I have considered dispensing with a tree, which nowadays involves cutting down one of the big blue spruces that have gotten away from my ministrations in the Christmas tree field, lopping off 6 or 8 feet of the top to bring in the house, and cutting up the rest for firewood and rabbit brushpiles. My plan was simply to get a number of poinsettias, stack them up in a pyramid shape, and decorate that. Brilliant, if I do say so myself.

Poinsettia at holiday time has become traditional, yet the reason for it is nowhere as well known. A lovely and interesting plant, the poinsettia has an interesting energy efficient trick. They waste no resources on showy flowers. Red leaves on the top of this plant serve to lure in pollinating insects. Yellow blossoms are found on the top of the plant as a consolation prize for the bees drawn in by the bright red foliage.

Central America is the native habitat of the plant as well as the origin of the attachment of the Poinsettia to the holidays. As the folktale goes, high in the mountains of Mexico, there lived a poor family with two children. Roses were traditionally brought to the church on Christmas eve and presents for the baby Jesus were placed by the manger scene set up in the church yard. Invariably, the two children, Maria and her little brother Pablo, were teased because they could not afford even a single rose.

Still they wanted to come to the church yard on Christmas eve for they loved the festival. They decided to pick some roadside weeds, poinsettias, to leave as the only gift they could afford. Maria carried the small plants and Pablo placed them around the manger. As Pablo put down the last Poinsettia, the top leaves turned brilliant red. Surrounded by the red/green plants we know today, the manger scene was more beautiful than ever before and the legend of the Poinsettia was born.

In Central America the Poinsettia is called the “Flame Leaf” or “Flower of the Holy Night.” More than 100 years ago, the first was brought to the United States by Dr. Joel Poinsettia, our first ambassador to Mexico. Interestingly, most of the poinsettias used throughout the world now come from California, owing to the efforts of three generations of a family named Ecke who developed a technique for introducing a disease to the plants that caused them to have multiple flowering branches instead of simply a central stem. This made much more lovely plants which sold well in the retail trade.

The poinsettia is pictured in Aztec art and literature both as a source of red dye and as an antipyretic. This is interesting insofar as current urban mythology has the plant being highly toxic. The fact is, while the latex sap of the plant will make you queasy and is darned painful to get in the eyes, it is not dangerous. In the Aztec language, the poinsettia is called Cuitlaxochitl, meaning “flower that grows in residues,” for the apparent good growing conditions the plant found in dumps, middens, and toilet areas.

This makes my idea even more exciting, however, I just received word there will be NO poinsettia pile and I WILL be getting the tree tomorrow. There goes my back. ...

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.

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