Posted in Personal life, Travel

O, Flower of Christmas!

When I was a child growing up in a London suburb, one of the highlights of our festive season was to sing carols around the huge Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square.

Although this may sound like a very English tradition, the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is not British at all, on two counts.

  • Firstly, Christmas trees only caught on in Britain after Prince Albert introduced the concept from his German homeland in 1848. You may be surprised to realise that the quintessential portrait of the Victorian British Christmas, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, does not contain a single Christmas tree.
  • Secondly, the tree in Trafalgar Square is a gift from the people of Norway. They have sent one every year since 1947 to thank Britain for its support during the Second World War. (An interesting aside: the word “quisling”, meaning traitor, derives from the name of Norwegian Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling, who from 1942 until 1945 led the German-friendly government while the King of Norway took shelter in Britain.)
Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square
By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Evergreens of other kinds, such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe, have been part of a British Christmas for centuries. Borrowed from pagan winter festivals, they symbolise the promise of new life, whether in the form of spring or the birth of Christ.

The poinsettia, however, is a relative newcomer to the traditional Christmas canon of plants. Until recently, I’d assumed the only reason it pops up in shops in December is because of its festive colours. Not so.

The connection comes from a sweet Mexican legend…

image of a poinsettia
By André Karwath aka Aka – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

A little Mexican girl was fretting because she was too poor to buy a birthday gift for Jesus, to lay at her local church’s manger scene, in keeping with village tradition. Suddenly an angel appeared, telling her to gather weeds from the roadside, because what mattered was not the cost of her gift, but what was in her heart. Her neighbours were scornful when she brought a bouquet of green weeds to the church, but in a heart-warming Christmas miracle, as she set them down on the altar, red flowers sprang up among the green leaves in the shape of the star of Bethlehem.

My first slightly frivolous thought on hearing the story was that it’s a Mexican take on my favourite carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter”: “What can I give him, poor as I am? I know, I’ll bring a poinsettia.”

As you probably know, the red parts of the poinsettia technically aren’t flowers at all, but leaves that have turned red. Its flowers are the tiny yellow buds at the centre of each cluster of red leaves. But modern botanical definitions don’t detract from the power of the legend.

While the name we use for the plant commemorates the American diplomat, Sir Joel Roberts Poinsett, who first imported cuttings from Mexico to the US in 1836, in Mexico, it’s known as flor de Navidad (Christmas flower) and flor de Nochebuena (flower of the Holy Night). The closest the Mexicans have to a Christmas tree is a decorated cactus.

Whatever greenery you choose to decorate your home this Christmas, I wish you joy and peace this festive season, and a New Year full of new life and hope.

This article first appeared in the Hawkesbury Parish News, December 2021

Further Festive Reading

Whether you are still Christmas shopping or you would some lighthearted and uplifting books to read during the holidays, you might like to take a look at these seasonal reads.

I’ve provided buying links in case you’d like to order them, but if you have any problems placing orders online, just let me know and I’ll arrange to send them to you myself.

cover of Murder in the Manger

Murder in the Manger – the third Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, a gentle, feel-good story that kicks off when the nativity play penned by Sophie goes somewhat off-script…

Order the paperback

Download the ebook

cover of Stranger at St Bride's

Stranger at St Bride’s As the staff and girls at St Bride’s prepare for their annual Christmas Fair,  stranger turns up to lay claim to the estate, and the fight to save the school is on!

Order the paperback

Download the ebook

cover of Stocking Fillers by Debbie Young

Stocking Fillers – the antidote to pre-Christmas stress, 12 funny stories about different aspects of the festive season, easy quick reads that make the perfect Secret Santa present or indeed a gift to self!

Order the paperback

Download the ebook

Cover of Lighting Up Time

Lighting Up Time – this short story is set at the winter solstice, available in a slim paperback the size of a picture postcard

Order the paperback

Download the ebook

Posted in Writing

The Emperor’s New Wall – A Topical Short Story

A short story about a great big wall
(too tempting a target for me to resist)

aerial shot of the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China by PDell via

“Sir, the next team of architects is ready for you now.”

“Okay, send ’em in, send ’em in. They’d better be better than the last guys. They were all like ‘ooh, low impact, ooh, low emissions’.” He shook his hands in the air for emphasis. “Like that’s an issue. It’s a wall, for Chrissake, a wall has to have impact or it’s not going to keep out the criminals. Do they think I’m dumb?”

Assuming the question to be rhetorical, the aide stood back to show two suited men into the Oval Office, the shorter one holding his hands out in front of him, bent at the elbows like a robot’s. They gave a well-rehearsed bow to the president, who immediately brightened. He liked them already. Still he slammed his hands down of the table like a spoiled child demanding his dinner. “So, what have you guys got to show me?”

The previous contenders had hefted copious models, mockups and materials onto the shining oval table. “Didn’t you forget something?” He looked around the room.

The taller man smiled deferentially and turned to his colleague. “Simon, let’s show the Commander-in-Chief the first brick, if you will.”

Simon took a step closer to his colleague and turned towards him. “Here you go, Mark.” Mark reached with both hands to the space in front of Simon’s chest. He appeared to lift a heavy rectangle of air from above his outstretched arms and set it down carefully on the desk.

“What, are you joshing me? I don’t see nothing.” The president stared incredulously at the empty table.

Mark raised his index finger. “Ah, you are one jump ahead of me, sir. I see you’ve already spotted the unique selling point of our bid: the use of camouflaged bricks. You see, sir, like a chameleon, these special bricks, which we are making available exclusively for your use, take on the exact appearance of whatever they are set against. Yet they’re still as strong as steel.  American steel, of course.”

He removed another, then another, from Simon’s arms. Simon staggered slightly, as if relieved by the reduction in weight of his load. Mark stacked them neatly beside each other. “You see, sir, you can’t even see the join.”

The president bent down and peered across the table, his eye on a level with the bricks. “No, you’re right, I can’t. Yet they’re made of all-American steel, you say?”

Mark shook his head. “Not exactly, but of a substance as strong as American steel.”

“We’ll call it American steel,” murmured the President, as if making a mental note-to-self.

“Another great feature is that they don’t need welding or cementing into place. The material reacts naturally in American sunshine. Twenty-four hours in place along the Mexican border, and they’ll meld into place and form an unshakable bond. There’s not a bulldozer or a bomb that could destroy your wall, Mr President.”

The president raised his own index finger. These guys sure were talking his language. “They’re US made?”

Mark nodded. “Of course, sir. And it’ll be the American sun that melds them.”

The president’s thumb touched his index finger to form an O. “Let us be very clear, my friends, we cannot have Mexican sunshine involved in the building of our wall.” He reached a hand gingerly towards the row of invisible bricks, then quickly drew it back. “Excuse me for not testing it myself, but I’m a germ phobic. I don’t know where those bricks have been. But I can see for myself the thing works. And you told me it works, so it must do.”

Mark and Simon exchanged glances. “Oh, one more thing, sir,” put in Mark. “As you’ll be first to appreciate, the camouflage feature has aesthetic advantages.”

“As that what?”

“Its good looks, sir. I know you value good looks.”

The president’s mouth twitched at one corner. “Yes, I am drawn to good looks. Beauty is like a magnet to me.”

Mark nodded approvingly. “What I mean is, sir, a wall made of these bricks will not spoil the view for Americans. That’s good news for all Americans, of course, but especially good for those Americans whose communities and homes that the wall will pass through, as it will have to do on considerable stretches of the border.”

“Nor will it spoil the beautiful mountains scenery for Americans, sir,” added Simon.

“Ah yes, the beautiful mountains, great American mountains, great great mountains. But what if people try to get past it?”

“Bam! No entry here, sir!” Mark mimed recoiling from a wall, hands defensively before his chest.

“So, where’s the catch, guys? Is it the cost?”

“Ah, the cost.” Mark looked down as if to consider. “Well, it’s a lengthy production process, as you will understand, and our miners will be on overtime to deliver enough raw materials to manufacture the billions of bricks required for such a long wall.”

“Glad you’re boosting the American mining industry too. A fantastic, fantastic industry. Under me, it’s doing just great.”

“Yes, sir. So you’ll be looking at just a hundred thousand dollars per mile.” Mark held his finger and thumb in an O as he named the figure, in a gesture he’d planned not only to echo the president’s body language, but also to subliminally suggest both excellence and zero cost.

The president nodded slowly, not speaking while he tried to work out the total budget required for 2,000 miles at $100K in his head. He gave up. The cost was immaterial anyway, as the Mexicans had said they would foot the bill, hadn’t they? Suddenly he scowled, holding up his index finger to pause the negotiations. He didn’t get where he was today by not knowing how to strike a great, great deal. Bigly.

“Hold on guys, I’ve seen a big problem here.”

Without looking at each other Mark and Simon held their breath. “Sir?”

The president jabbed the air. “Nobody will be able to see this wall from space. It’s important that you can see this great American wall from space. And it has to look bigger and better than China’s wall. The great Wall of Trump is going to be the biggest and the longest and the best wall in the world. I want all those guys up in space to know that too.”

Mark and Simon exhaled, smiling. Mark was quick to put the president’s mind at rest. “But sir, you don’t have to worry on that score. It’s an urban myth that you can see the Great Wall of China from space. You really can’t. And of course, with our exclusive camouflage bricks, Mr President, no one will see the Great Wall of Trump from space either.”

The president’s white-toothed smile put in its first appearance of the day. “Just testing, guys. I mean, Putin is a fantastic, fantastic guy, and that Great Wall he built to keep the Chinese out of Russia is doing great for him, but I want him to be truly amazed when he sees what I’ve done with ours. I want the Great Wall of Trump to go down in history as the most astonishing act of any American president.” He waggled his index finger. “Any American president. Ever.”

Mark and Simon exchanged glances. “Oh, it will sir, we assure you it will.”


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