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Border Maintains Tradition of Posadas
Article first published in Vol. 11, 1993.
By Veronica Lujan. Research Contribution By Claudia Renteria
On the U. S.-Mexico border, mid-December marks the beginning of Christmas festivities with the observance of Las Posadas, a religious pageant.
All Christians know that Christmas is a time to celebrate the birth of Christ. Few people, however, act in out for nine days as participants do in Las Posadas. The word posada means inn, or place of lodging. Las Posadas are candlelight processions commemorating Mary and Joseph's journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and reenacting their search for shelter. The processions are held for nine days from December 16th to the 24th and may be celebrated in different ways.
Posadas were first celebrated in Mexico in the late 16th century, having been brought over from Spain. Fray Diego de Soria organized the pageant in the late 1500s to teach Christianity to the Aztecs. The original celebration was an episode of the old Spanish Christmas play Los Pastores (The Shepherds), written around the incidents relating to the birth of Christ. The posadas became so popular that they spread to other parts of Mexico, eventually making their way to the northern border.
Las Posadas may be reenacted by nine families who meet at a different house each night. Or, according to Rita Sanchez, tenth generation participant and an organizer of many posadas, "the pageant can be reenacted by a group that meets at a church and walks around the church grounds in procession."
According to Sanchez, when the posada is celebrated in someone's home, the participants are divided in two groups, the pilgrims and the innkeepers. The evening begin with the rosary begin led by the head of the house. Family, friends and guests representing the pilgrims then form the procession and march around the house carrying lighted candles. Two children dressed as the Holy Family carry the figures of Joseph and Mary.
SSanchez says that at the age of eight, she was chosen by her teacher to play the Virgin Mary in the pageant. "Oh, what a great honor that was! That day after school I walked throughout my town [Loma Blanca, Mexico] to make sure I knew my way for that special night." Other children dress in white to represent the angels who accompany the Holy Family. Each innkeeper takes his place in one of the rooms or house. Moving room to room or house to house, the pilgrims sing the villancicos, or carols, in which Joseph asks for shelter for Mary who is about to bear her son, Jesus.
The innkeepers then reply in song, denying them shelter. Here are version of the first and last carols translated into English, which would be sung by the pilgrims and the innkeepers:
In the name of heaven, I ask for lodging, For my wife cannot walk.
There is no room here. Go on your way! Several villancicos are sung as the procession continues, always being turned away by the "innkeepers," at designated homes. Finally, the pilgrims are given shelter, and they sing: Pilgrims God bless your charity and fill your heaven with joy.
Bless this house that Shelters this day The pure and beautiful Virgin Mary.
An altar has been set up at this home, and the nativity scene, or nacimiento, is often decorated with miniature houses, sheep and shepherds to create the setting of Bethlehem. The figures of Mary and Joseph are placed in the stable, and the procedure is followed each night until Christmas Eve, when the Christ Child is laid in the manger.
Each night after the ceremony is over, refreshments are served, including calientitos, a hot chocolate, coffee, buñuelos, which are large, thin, crispy Mexican cookies, pan dulce, or sweet bread, and tamales. Children break a candy-filled piñata. A procession done at a church is closed by the Misa de Gallo, or midnight mass, usually taking place on Christmas Eve.
Here in Southwest, the Hispanic community continues the celebration in very much the same way. However, Licha Sanchez says that the American traditions of a Christmas tree and Santa Claus have replaced the old Mexican customs in her family. Sanchez remarks, "It is very easy to forget your heritage, especially if your ancestors are not there to remind you of it."
Bishop Juan Sandoval of Juárez agrees with this sentiment, saying that "posadas" have been influenced by other customs, such as Santa Claus, and these influences have affected our Mexican tradition greatly." He adds that even the posadas in Juárez are different from those celebrated in the South of Mexico because people on the border do not participate as readily.
Still, for many people Las Posadas continue to have importance. Bishop Sandoval contends that "tradition of Las Posadas hasn't lost its religious significance. It is part of our Mexican Christmas and it has an important place in our Catholic community."
Though the celebration of this tradition is changing, it is still possible to witness this pageant in Mexico and in the American Southwest because of their Hispanic communities.
A number of Catholic Churches in Southern New Mexico, El Paso and Juárez stage Las Posadas in December. The El Paso Community College also celebrates the tradition of one evening. Las Posadas is drama, music and entertainment for young and old. But for many, it is first and foremost, a religious tradition.