Las Posadas: in Spanish, those words mean the inns. They have also become the name for events which are part of the celebration of Advent and Christmas in many parts of the globe where speakers of Spanish live. In the United States, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona are places where Las Posada are most often held.
What is this event about? The story of Las Posadas is twofold, what it represents and how that is recreated.
You may recall the story told in the gospel of Saint Luke: a Roman census required that Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth where they lived to be counted in Bethlehem. There was no lodging available there though they went from place to place, until an innkeeper offered to let them stay in a stable. Jesus was born in a stable, cradled in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Las Posadas re-enacts and extends the story of Mary and Joseph searching for a place where they could rest from their journey and welcome their child.
Las Posadas may have at first been a mystery play in medieval times, Centuries later, when Catholic Spaniards extended their territory to the new world, friars used the idea of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter as one way to teach indigenous peoples of Mexico about their faith.
These days, there are several ways Las Posadas take place. In the United States (and usually, elsewhere) there are common elements: two people, who represent Mary and Joseph, carry candles or lanterns and lead a procession. They stop at several places where they ask for shelter, and are told there is no room for them, they must keep on walking. They continue on, until one person shows them to a place where they may rest.
That’s a bare bones account of a religious event which is marked in many ways.
Las Posadas may be celebrated over the nine days leading up to Christmas, with midnight mass of Christmas as the culmination. In other communities it may take one weekend, or an afternoon, or one evening.
Where Las Posadas is set for nine nights, the whole journey may be re-enacted each evening, or the procession may stop at one place every evening and be turned away for eight days, accepted on the ninth.
Mary and Joseph (and others in the procession) may wear costumes, or not. They may be accompanied by someone representing an angel, or not. In some communities a real donkey is involved. In case you were wondering, when Las Posadas travels through a neighborhood or town, stopping places are worked out beforehand. In some communities even those who turn the couple away offer participants food or drink; in most cases, though, that happens only at the place where they find rest.
The procession may involve adults or children — usually both. If you are watching, you may find yourself pulled into the procession or invited to join, although some communities do not do this.
There is music. The participants may sing a traditional song asking for a place to stay. Usually this is sung in Spanish, sometimes in English. The chorus in both languages repeats and it is a simple melody, so you can catch on to sing along if you wish.
Other songs are sung too. They may include carols you will recognize (though they might be sung in Spanish) and others, such as this one, sung here by Tish Hinojosa.
You may find it recorded on Hinojosa’s album From Texas for a Christmas Night. Hinojosa, an award winning singer and songwriter, is first generation Mexican American.
The event may take place across a whole neighborhood, a block or two, in school classrooms and hallways, in a backyard, or in one or two rooms of a church, a chapel, or a house. The idea of travelers seeking rest is what carries through. So, too, does the character of this as a religious event — it is not solemn but it is not a party, either. There may well be a holiday party once Mary and Joseph have found their rest, though.
Quite a party it will be, too. Children will be be invited to bash star shaped pinatas to release treats inside. Tamales sweet and savory will be shared along with Christmas cookies and other festive foods. There will be more music, too.
Where might you see and/or participate in an observance of Las Posadas? Santa Fe, New Mexico, often celebrates with public processions. San Antonio, Texas, has events which conclude at the cathedral downtown and other celebrations which happen at the historic missions. At times over the years I’ve been fortunate to be present for one that was a small neighborhood event in northern New Mexico, and another that took place at a community school in central Texas, as well as to see part of a rehearsal for one of the big celebrations in San Antonio, and when family friends in Tennessee had all the traditional events in their house during an afternoon into evening of a very snowy December day. Las Posadas may be a large public event or a small private one.
Look around you, in December. It’s possible you may find Las Posadas being celebrated where you are. If you are in the southwestern US, it’s very likely you will find notice of such celebrations, but they take place elsewhere in the US and in other parts of the world, as well.
Las Posadas: whether this story of Christmas is part of your faith or not, the idea of travelers looking for shelter is one that merits reflection, at the winter holidays and through the year.
Photographs fourth and sixth from top courtesy of the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau.
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