Communities celebrate Mexican holiday tradition

The Las Posadas event was Saturday night in Seaview. One door the group stopped at was at Chico's Pizza Parlor, where they sang their song, asking for shelter. DAMIAN MULINIX photos

SEAVIEW - Dressed in the clothes of kings, angels and peasants, the children set out walking Saturday night.

During their journey they knocked on several doors, exchanging sung verses with the people inside. Leading the way were a boy and a girl who represented the Biblical figures Joseph and Mary as they made their way back to Joseph's home land. It was the observation of Las Posadas.

Las Posadas means "the inns," in representation of the eight inns that Joseph and Mary were turned away from because there was no room as they traveled to Bethlehem. At the ninth inn they found shelter, albeit a stable, where Mary's son Jesus was born.

Today, the Las Posadas holiday is predominately celebrated by the people of Mexico. The holiday was offered as an alternative to a pagan holiday, celebrated by the native Aztec tribes of Mexico, by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Along with the explorers came Catholic missionaries. The Aztecs coincidentally celebrated the birth of their god Huitzilopochtli during the last days of December, around the same time as Christmas. The missionaries, noting the similarities between the two holidays, found it easy to substitute a new faith for the old.

"It's very similar to what Christianity did all over the world," said Father Blaine Hammond of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Seaview. "Instead of saying that you can't have a celebration, they would just change the meaning."

Back in 1999, local resident Nancy Holmes heard an employee, named Daniel Lopez, singing a traditional Las Posadas song in the kitchen of the business she owned at that time. Upon hearing this she inquired and was told the story behind it. Holmes was intrigued by it and spearheaded a local celebration.

The local Las Posadas event originally took place in Ilwaco and was sponsored by the Ilwaco Merchant Association. Last fall, those merchants decided not to sponsor the event and it was put off for a year.

Father Hammond picked up the torch, feeling that it was an important celebration for the Hispanic community. Hammond has been holding services in Spanish for some time.

"I was saying, 'well, what else can we do?'" he said. "Then I remembered Las Posadas as being a lot of fun."

Hammond got together with Father Victor Olvida of St. Mary's Catholic Church, which also has a large Hispanic congregation, and who helped sponsor the event this year, as well as rounding up some of the people who helped put it together in the past including Holmes, Fernando Rodriguez and Enrique Schott.

The event consists of a procession led by many of the characters in the Christmas story, most of whom were played by children, including Mary and Joseph and the three kings. One angel, who led the group, was played by Guadalupe Perez. In respect of Mexican tradition, El Diablo, or the devil, also made an appearance and was also played by an adult.

"He needs to be old you know, the devil," said Schott. "A lot of experience. He's been around a long time."

When the travelers reach each door they sing a song asking for lodging. The song is sung back and forth between those on the outside and those on the inside.

"The ones outside ask for lodging, there's two parts of the song," said Schott. "The insiders deny the lodging."

When they finally reach the ninth door they are given lodging - in the form of a fiesta. In Mexico, Las Posadas is celebrated over nine days, each with its own little party, the final day being like the fiesta held here Saturday. It traditionally begins on Dec. 16, nine days before Christmas eve, which would be the night the travelers found shelter, or posadas.

"Each neighborhood would have it's own party with pinata's, candies, many different things," told Rodriguez of the fiesta that takes place on the ninth day in Mexico. "People get together and pay for a band, all the expenses they will need. Tamales, many different Mexican dishes."

This was the fourth annual local observation of Las Posadas after taking last year off. In its first year, the pilgrimage procession had over 100 people marching along. In the following years those numbers reduced. On Saturday night, over 50 people followed the group, despite on and off drops of rain. Well over 100 were in attendance for the fiesta.

The event began Saturday night following a bilingual mass at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Seaview. The children playing Joseph and Mary for the evening - along with a company of angels, three kings, and a live donkey - began their journey. El Diablo also made several appearances, trying to discourage the travelers.

With a large group following them singing songs, the couple visited eight doors in the Seaview area, including the Loose Caboose, Sid's Market, Chico's Pizza Parlor, D&K Best Buys and the Peninsula Church Center. They did not receive shelter, but they did receive some interested looks from people buying groceries or eating pizza for dinner.

They finally reached the ninth door when they arrived outside the fellowship hall at the church center, where this time they were let inside, and the party began - complete with a buffet of foods and a mariachi band. The fiesta lasted for several hours, with games and music, and a pinata.

Rodriguez said that Las Posadas still holds a great deal of significance in the Mexican community, both in the old country and in the United States. Schott said he also sees it as a time when the Hispanic and other cultures can come together in a spirit of celebration. Hammond said the he believes that the Christmas story that is told through the celebration is one that can help people better understand what faith in that may mean to them.

"I would say that it's the story," said Hammond. "It's the story that gives it the meaning. Christmas is part of the story and Easter is part of the story, the journey of Mary and Joseph is part of the story. By hearing the story, you start to understand what the religion means. And by understanding what the religion means, you start to understand what your life means in relationship to religion.

"You see that the parents of the son of God had to struggle, and that tells you right there that they understand what it means to be poor and be needy. This is the story of the people that are struggling to live."

A History of Las Posadas

Scarlet poinsettias, frilly pinatas and gay clusters of balloons. Religious banners, images of saints, candlelit processions and comic theatricals - they're all part of the exciting pageant that is Christmas time in Mexico.

Every region of Mexico celebrates Christmas in its own distinctive way - with traditional dances and plays, bull fights, rodeos, parades and special holiday foods. The Christmas observances of today are a piquant blend of Spanish and Indian cultures, a commingling of old customs and new variations, with roots that go back more than 400 years.

How it all began

The mighty civilizations of the Mayas, Toltecs, Chichimecas, and finally, the Aztecs ruled Mexico in their turn. Spanish explorers discovered this strange new world in the 16th century with an expeditionary army to conquer the Aztec empire - and capture its fantastic treasury of gold. Sixteen years later, Mexico became a Spanish colony, which it remained until 1821.

With the conquistadors came Catholic missionaries, bringing their Christian faith to the pagan land. By a strange coincidence, the Aztecs celebrated the birth of their god Huitzilopochtli during the last days of December, around the winter solstice, at about the same time as Christmas.

The festival celebrating Huizilopochtli's birth was the most important one of the Aztec year. It began at midnight and continued through the following day, with much singing, dancing, and speechmaking.

The missionaries, noting the similarities between their own commemoration of the birth of Christ and the Aztecs' December observances, found it a relatively simple matter to substitute a new faith for the old.

The first Christmas in old Mexico was celebrated in 1538 by Fray Pedro de Gante. The Indians loved the new feast day, and adopted it wholeheartedly, adding their own colorful touches of flowers and feathers. The numbers of enthusiastic new churchgoers continued to grow over the years.

Las Posadas, a nine-night series of processions reenacting Joseph and Mary's journey to Bethlehem, began in this time. Medieval European passion plays were adapted by the missionaries for the indigenous people and sometimes even translated into Nahuatl, the Aztec language. The 16th-century priests also brought the custom of smashing a gaily decorated pot called the pinata to the New World, using it as a finale to the Christmas masses.

Las Posadas

"And so it was that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." Luke 2:1-7

This familiar Bible story is related every year at Christmas time in churches and homes the world over. In Mexico each December, it actually comes to life once again, as Joseph and Mary's long-ago search for lodging is reenacted for nine consecutive nights in the festive ritual of Las Posadas, which means inn, or lodging, in Spanish.

The idea of commemorating the holy family's journey to Bethlehem can be traced back to St. Ignatius Loyola, in the 16th century. He suggested a Christmas novena, or special prayers to be said on nine successive days. In 1580, St. John of the Cross made a religious pageant out of the proceedings, and seven years later the nine-day remembrance was introduced to the Indians in Mexico by Spanish missionaries.

The posada begins with a procession that sets off as soon as it gets dark. Usually a child dressed as an angel heads the procession, followed by two more children carrying figures of Mary and Joseph on a small litter adorned with twigs of pine. When the procession reaches the house chosen for that evening, it divides into two groups, one representing the holy pilgrims, the other the innkeepers. The pilgrims line up behind the angel and the children bearing the figures of the Holy Family, and they file through the house until they arrive at a closed door, behind which the innkeepers have stationed themselves. The pilgrims knock on the door and call out in song, asking for shelter. After being denied, everyone enters the room and kneels in prayer, after which the party moves out to the patio for fireworks and fun.

For eight nights virtually the same ceremonies are repeated. But on the ninth evening, Christmas Eve, a particularly impressive posada takes place, during which an image of the Christ Child is carried in by two people who are called the God parents and laid in His tiny crib.

In Mexican cities today, posadas often take place in the casas de vecindad, tenement houses, where the rooms all open onto one big patio or courtyard. The neighbors contribute their share of the expenses and celebrate together. In towns and villages, the posada may start in the church courtyard, wander through the streets and end up back at the church, and the pinata will often be strung up in the village square.

- History contributed by Fernando Rodriquez

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