During the nine days before Christmas, many Hispanic communities host a nightly procession known as Las Posadas. In Spanish las posadas means “the inns” or “the lodgings.” According to this old Mexican custom, groups of children and adults reenact MARY and JOSEPH’s search for shelter in BETHLEHEM. Staging Las Posadas requires the coordination of many people. The event may be organized by a group of neighbors, families and friends, churches, or community organizations.
THE PROCESSION AND CELEBRATION
Las Posadas begins on the evening of December 16. Participants gather at a prearranged time and place, sometimes offering prayers before the event begins. Two youngsters are selected to play the roles of Joseph and Mary. These roles may be carried out in a variety of ways. In many places they hold images of Joseph and Mary before them as they lead the procession out into the street. These images are called misterios, or “mysteries.” In other places the children acting as Joseph and Mary dress the part, donning robes that evoke the biblical era. In rural villages Mary may ride upon a donkey. In some locales a child dressed as an ANGEL clears the way for the Holy Couple. Participants file out in procession behind Mary and Joseph, carrying candles and singing Christmas songs.
The procession dramatizes Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to spend the night in Bethlehem, an event suggested in chapter two of the GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE. In Las Posadas the couple must be refused shelter at least once before a kind innkeeper finally takes them in. Joseph and Mary lead the procession through the streets to the first house. Joseph knocks on the door and begs shelter for the night. He often chants this request in rhymed verse. The homeowner has agreed in advance to participate in the event, playing the role of the innkeeper. He or she comes to the door, but refuses Joseph’s request. Joseph and Mary turn away into the night, leading the procession to another house. The organizers may arrange many refusals or only one. Sometimes the first innkeeper experiences a change a heart after Joseph explains their situation and reveals their identities. In any case, Joseph and Mary finally encounter a family that graciously welcomes them, and their entourage, into the house. This family will host the evening’s entertainment.
Before the arrival of the procession the hosts prepare a NATIVITY SCENE or altar with room for the images that the children carry. When the entire procession has entered the house Mary and Joseph come forward, putting the statues in the places reserved for them. This act, and the accompanying prayer, concludes the procession and the party begins. The hosts offer traditional Mexican sweets, such as tamales, bizcochitos (sugar cookies) and such beverages as spiced hot chocolate to their guests. The evening’s entertainments usually include music, dancing, a candy-filled piñata for the children, and sometimes fireworks.
Las Posadas may be enacted in a variety of ways, depending on local traditions as well as on limitations of time, space, money, and personnel. In the old days, processions took place on each of the nine nights preceding Christmas. Today, many groups stage only one procession on the last of the nine nights, Christmas Eve. Although traditionally the pilgrims marched through the streets, Las Posadas has been adapted to fit new living situations. In some areas, Mary and Joseph wend their way down the halls of apartment buildings. In others they graciously include the corridors of nursing homes in their trek.
In many ways Las Posadas resembles the old European custom of Christmas time MUMMING. Most writers trace its historical roots back to the medieval European mystery or miracle plays, however (see also NATIVITY PLAY). These plays taught Bible stories and religious doctrine to a largely illiterate people. They began sometime around the tenth and eleventh centuries as simple enactments of the liturgy performed in churches by the clergy. As the plays became more complex and entertaining, audiences grew. Eventually, folk performers began to stage them in public arenas. Many changes deemed undesirable by the clergy accompanied this shift. These innovations caused the Church to ban these performances in the fifteenth century.
Nevertheless, dramatizing biblical stories had proved an effective means of communicating religious ideas. In the sixteenth century two Spanish saints created a new kind of religious ceremony to accompany the Christmas holiday. St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) pro-posed that special prayers be offered on each of the nine days before Christmas. This type of religious observance, known as a novena, found favor with St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), who added a religious pageant to the event. Spanish missionaries brought this custom to MEXICO in the sixteenth century where they used it to teach the story of JESUS’ birth to the native people they found there. As these ceremonies were organized by Church officials, they were at first very religious and quite somber. Gradually, the people themselves began to organize the event, and a lighter, more festive mood began to emerge.
OBSERVANCES IN U.S. CITIES
From Mexico Las Posadas spread south to El Salvador, GUATEMALA, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and north to the United States. In the latter, many impressive observances of Las Posadas can be found throughout the southwestern states. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, a number of Roman Catholic churches organize traditional nine-night Posadas. Different families host the celebrations during the first eight nights, then the churches themselves hold the party on Christmas Eve. The city of San Antonio, Texas, stages a Posadas procession along the river that attracts thousands of people. Mariachi musicians, choral ensembles, and ordinary citizens follow behind Mary and Joseph. LUMINARIAS, or small bonfires, light the parade route. The crowd rejoices when the Holy Family finally finds lodging. Afterwards the city hosts a party for children in a nearby plaza.