Las Posadas, the nine-day celebration of Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter before the birth of Jesus, was an annual tradition in Tijuana, Mexico, recalled Peter Mares, a Tijuana native who directs La Casa, a shelter for migrant workers in Sodus, Wayne County.
When he moved to Los Angeles, Mares found that he didn’t have to leave the tradition behind. In that city, the streets were as decorated for Las Posadas as they were at home.
“I thought I was in Mexico,” Mares remarked.
Although the cold winter weather in the Diocese of Rochester puts something of a chill on Las Posadas, some local celebrations still take place, especially at area migrant camps, said Sylvia Davis, a migrant worker outreach volunteer in Brockport.
Though Las Posadas is very popular in some areas of Mexico, it also is celebrated in other Latin American countries. Some scholars have traced the celebration to adaptations of a Spanish tradition by Augustinian and Franciscan priests who were evangelizing the population in Mexico. Others point to the Aztecs, who had a nine-day celebration that marked the birth of the Sun God.
Music is central to the celebration, with participants traveling from house to house singing carols as well as the traditional Las Posadas song, in which they plead for shelter.
“Every day you do the same thing,” Mares said. “You sing, ‘Let us in, let us in.’”
This song has now become so popular that it is included in several Spanish-language and dual-language Catholic hymnals.
“It’s not just a text,” said Father Daniel McMullin, director of Cornell Catholic Community who has a doctorate from Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. “It’s a tradition.”
In the Las Posadas song, the singers outside a home are answered by those inside the home, who tell the group that they are full and can’t let them in.
The tradition varies in practice from place to place. In Tijuana, Mares said, people were let in each night. However, in other parts of Mexico, the group of peregrinos, or pilgrims, is denied admission at each house until the ninth day. In other areas, the group goes to three houses a night, with the first two refusing admittance and the third allowing the travelers in. Often, the final night of Las Posadas flows into midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Some scholars have said that the number nine is significant, in that it reflects the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy. It has another meaning as well.
“They do it from the nine days before Christmas, so it’s like a novena,” said Sister of St. Joseph Judy Justinger of the Diocese of Buffalo’s migrant ministry, who works with the migrant population in Albion. Some scholars trace the suggestion of a pre-Christmas novena back to St. Ignatius of Loyola and the pre-Christmas procession to St. John of the Cross.
Sister Justinger noted that Las Posadas often is not just a party; in some places, people use the tradition as part of catechetical instruction and faith sharing.
The scope of the tradition also varies from community to community, Mares said. Some areas, especially those with more resources, have even more elaborate processions, he noted, and great pains are taken to make the processions as authentic as possible, with a couple of children dressed up as Mary and Joseph.
“If you get a donkey, that’s awesome,” Mares remarked.
Sometimes other figures, such as the three kings, tag along during the trip, Mares said.
“They even get the devil involved, to show the evilness of the world — the dual nature of life: good and evil,” he said.
The homes that are selected for visits often are warned ahead of time, and typically have prepared food for the pilgrims and a party with a pi√±ata. The group is served chocolate and atole, a sugar-free cornstarch-based hot drink, Mares said. Often, the host family will serve tamales and the stews pozole and menudo.
“The kids are there for the pi√±ata,” Mares observed.
Mares said pi√±atas used to be made of clay before papier-mache was deemed safer children to break.
“The clay used to pop and fly all over the place,” he said.
Traditional pi√±atas contained handmade candy, homemade chocolate, sugar cane, and oranges and other fruits, rather than the manufactured candies found in today’s pi√±atas, said Mares, who also recalled his priest in Tijuana passing out quarters to the children attending Las Posadas celebrations.
Local celebrations of Las Posadas also vary.
Last year, Davis said that Brockport’s celebration began with a church service, then the group went to a migrant camp where participants put up a Nativity scene and a makeshift altar. However, the Brockport celebration lasts only one night, she noted.
“It has been hard for us to do it here because the weather has been so cold,” she said.
Davis said the local celebration of Las Posadas sometimes includes images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast day is just four days before the beginning of Las Posadas. The feast day arose from the appearance of the Virgin Mary on a hill northwest of Mexico City, for which she became known as Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In addition to reminding them of their native country, Las Posadas hold special meaning for today’s migrant workers in the United States, Mares said. Like Mary and Joseph, they also are on a journey and are often looking for shelter.
“They go through it all the time,” Mares said. “They are always looking for posada. I tell them at La Casa this place is a posada.”