“Do you have posadas for Christmas in the United States?” a friend of mine ask while we were at a Christmas party in San Cristobal de las Casas.
I hesitated before replying. My knowledge of Spanish is that the word “posada” is the equivalent “inn” or a homely type of hotel. My mind raced to determine how an inn is related to Christmas. I thought of the manger scene from the Bible where Mary and Joseph went around to the inns to find a place to stay but had to go out and have Jesus in a barn. Could she mean the reenactors who dress up and hang out in manger scenes out in front of churches around Christmas?
“Yes, we have Christmas posadas,” I finally answered, “and people dress up like Mary and Joseph and shepherds and stand out in front of churches.”
My friend looked at me funny. Really?
I gave in and asked her what a posada was.
A posada is a type of Christmas party, and, as it turned out, I was currently at one. Starting on December 16th, on each night leading up to to Christmas day processions make way through the streets on their way to an party — which is held at a different friend/ relative’s house each successive night. As they walk to the party destination each night, they stop at various other friend’s houses along the way. At these pre-destination stops they act as Joseph and Mary and say they are looking for an inn. The owner of the house acts as an inn keeper and tells the procession that just arrived at his/ her door that they will need to keep traveling on. Like this, the procession moves towards their intended destination for the night, where they will be permitted entrance to the party. At the party itself there is often a nativity scene set up.
Typically, each family in a neighborhood will schedule a night for the Posada to be held at their home, starting on the 16th of December and finishing on the 24th. Every home has a nativity scene and the hosts of the Posada act as the innkeepers. The neighborhood children and adults are the pilgrims (los peregrinos), who have to request lodging by going house to house singing a traditional song about the pilgrims. All the pilgrims carry small lit candles in their hands, and four people carry statuettes of Joseph leading a donkey, on which Mary is riding.
The head of the procession will have a candle inside a paper lampshade. At each house, the resident responds by refusing lodging (also in song), until the weary travelers reach the designated site for the party, where Mary and Joseph are finally recognized and allowed to enter. Once the “innkeepers” let them in, the group of guests come into the home and kneel around the Nativity scene to pray (typically, the Rosary). Latin American countries have continued to celebrate this holiday to this day, with very few changes to the tradition. In some places, the final location may be a church instead of a home.
Individuals may actually play the various parts of Mary (María) and Joseph with the expectant mother riding a real donkey (burro), with attendants such as angels and shepherds acquired along the way, or the pilgrims may carry images of the holy personages instead. Children may carry poinsettias. The procession will be followed by musicians, with the entire procession singing posadas such as pedir posada. At the end of each night’s journey, there will be Christmas carols (villancicos), children will break open star-shaped pinatas to obtain candy and fruit hidden inside, and there will be a feast. Pinatas are traditionally made out of clay. It is expected to meet all the invitees in a previous procession. -from Wikipedia
I did not observe the processions going from door to door just to be denied entry this Christmas season in San Cristobal. Rather, it seems as if most people just go straight to the house that the party is planned at each night. It is not uncommon or the party schedule to be set up by a church, as it is also not uncommon for the parties themselves to be held in churches.
The “posada” that I was at was a Christmas celebration for young children and their families at a nearby pre-school. My family is friends with the family of a little girl who goes there. We found ourselves packed into a room which was actually a parking area between homes that had tarps strung up as a roof. There were perhaps 60 people there, all stuffed in next to each other. There was lots of food which little kids could purchase with play money or adults with real pesos.
The scene could not be called anything other than overtly joyous, the kind of event that makes you nostalgic for a home community that most Americans have never experienced. Everyone there seemed to know everybody else, and we discovered that many already knew us as well. Our landlord’s sister was there, her mother as well, along with a plump woman who turned out to be the sister of one of our friends who runs a nearby taco restaurant. The connections of the community in which we currently reside began coming together, and our place in it began to unfold.
Latin American communities are nothing if not extremely tight: families occupy not only houses but entire neighborhoods. These communities are not just tightly woven from living in close proximity to each other but from blood bonds: they are all related. Multiple generations live where they grew up on and on into the future, and families are often not just nuclear units but entire clans who live within walking distance of each other. The wife of the taco vendor, who is also our friend and runs the restaurant with him, ended up being our landlord’s cousin. “Where do you live?” she asked me one day. I told her. “Oh, that’s my cousin’s place.”
This was nothing to be surprised about, everyone in a Latin American community seems to be the cousin, uncle, brother, sister, daughter, in law of just about anyone else. Families are not arranged in trees here, but in complex nets which span over entire neighborhoods. After talking with my landlord a little about how I’m friends with her cousin I was informed that she, in fact, is the relative of over 60 other people in our neighborhood.
“Tomorrow is the 90th birthday of my grandmother,” she told me, “and the entire family is going to be there.”
I made a guess at how many guests were expected, and my projection of 100 did not seem to be enough.
Imagine being the matriarch of a 100 person clan.
Though I’ve been in Latin America for a few Christmas celebrations, I’ve always happened to be in relatively culturally far flung locations (like on a beach or deep in a rainforest). This year would be the first that I would get to observe this holiday as it’s practiced by more mainstream Latino culture. The celebration at the preschool was a primer for the types of Christmas celebrations the people have here: food, conversation, children — lots of children.
After a couple of hours all of the kids that attend the preschool went to the front of the gathering. They were dressed in little red Santa Clause suits. Music then began playing and they all started singing together. My daughter, Petra, danced. The adults crowded in the front of the room to get a better view of the main event. They were all taking pictures and making videos. Everyone seemed to be making sighs of endearment — awwwwww — and exclaiming how cute the little performers were. The cuteness proved to be too much for some of the adults, as their ear to ear smiles transformed into little tears of joy.
This is Christmas.