Posadas, Las

Posadas, Las

During the nine days before Christmas, many Hispanic communities host a nightly procession known as Las Posadas. In Spanish lasposadas 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.

History

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) proposed 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.

Further Reading

Bragdon, Allen D. Joy Through the World. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1985. Christmas in Mexico. Chicago: World Book, 1976. Christmas in the American Southwest. Chicago: World Book, 1996. MacDonald, Margaret Read, ed. Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. Milne, Jean. Fiesta Time in Latin America. Los Angeles, Calif.: Ward Ritchie Press, 1965. Ribera Ortega, Pedro. Christmas in Old Santa Fe. Second edition. Santa Fe, N.M.: Sunstone Press, 1973.

Posadas, Las

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: December 16-24
Where Celebrated: Mexico, United States
Symbols and Customs: Piñata
Related Holidays: Christmas, Christmas Eve

ORIGINS

Las Posadas is a Christian religious tradition related to the birth of Jesus Christ. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

Las Posadas is a Mexican tradition whose popularity is growing in the United States, especially in southern California and the southwestern states. For nine nights, beginning on December 16, groups of friends and neighbors visit each other's houses and reenact Mary's and Joseph's search for shelter (Spanish posada) as they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem during the days preceding the birth of the infant Jesus. Each night the group knocks on someone's door, requests lodging, and is refused. Finally, on CHRISTMAS EVE, their request is granted. Once everyone is inside the house, there is feasting and merrymaking.

Las Posadas can take many different forms. Sometimes the processions are held in the streets and churches, with villagers carrying lighted candles and children pulling a wagon on which a nativity scene has been erected. There are also larger, more public presentations of las posadas that are open to townspeople and tourists. In some areas, posadas is synonymous with "parties," which are given on each of the nine nights leading up to CHRISTMAS. Everyone gathers at a particular house on the ninth evening, and the search by Mary and Joseph for lodgings is reenacted at the door of each room. On the stroke of midnight, the hostess leads them to a room where a table has been prepared. Images of Mary and Joseph are placed on the table and the feasting begins. An essential element of the posadas party is a PIÑATA for the children.

Among the poor, it is customary for friends and neighbors to get together and share the expenses involved in celebrating Las Posadas. This is especially true in Mexico, where Christmas is more of a community than a family event. In the United States, one of the most famous Posadas celebrations takes place on Olvera Street in Los Angeles.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Piñata

The piñata was originally a clay or pottery container covered with papier-mâché and colored tissue paper to resemble an animal, bird, clown, ball, or some other playful object. It originated in Italy during the Renaissance, where it was used as an entertainment at adult masquerade balls. But today it is primarily a party game for children. Blindfolded, they take turns trying to break the piñata, which is hung from a tree or a hook in the ceiling, with a stick. Once it shatters, everyone scrambles to collect the small toys and candy that have been concealed inside.

The last piñata of the Christmas season in Mexico is broken on Christmas Eve. After the final posada is held earlier in the evening and everyone has returned from midnight Mass, there is a big feast. The children get so excited trying to break open the piñata that they often start swinging the stick at each other.

FURTHER READING

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Crippen, T.G. Christmas and Christmas Lore. 1923. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Gulevich, Tanya. Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations. 2nd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2003. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Purdy, Susan. Festivals for You to Celebrate. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990.

WEB SITE

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum hoover.archives.gov/exhibits/christmasworld/mexico.html
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