Las Posadas: Open your Heart to the Journey of the Holy Family

Jeannie Ewing

Las Posadas: Open your Heart to the Journey of the Holy Family

A tradition celebrated in Mexico for over four hundred years, Las Posadas literally translates into lodging or accommodation from Spanish to English. It’s written in the plural form, because it’s a nine-day reenactment of the journey Mary and St. Joseph took to Bethlehem. The significance of nine days is twofold: one, it signifies a novena, or nine days of prayer, and two, it represents the nine months in which Mary was pregnant with Jesus.

Las Posadas originated as a dramatization of the Bible story relating Mary and St. Joseph’s journey and arrival in Bethlehem. Such forms of performing arts were popular hundreds of years ago due to the large population of illiterate people. Many Catholic priests and missionaries used such plays to educate the indigenous about Christianity.

Although Las Posadas was eventually banned once music was introduced into the ceremony, two Spaniards reintroduced it in the sixteenth century as the Christmas pageant, which has become a beloved holiday tradition in many Catholic and non-Catholic Christian churches today. A major motivating factor in this reintroduction was due to the pagan worship in Mexico to the Aztec goddess, Tonantzin Guadalupe, which was honored during the winter solstice.

Today, many Latino and Hispanic devotees throughout the world celebrate Las Posadas. Typically, two people are selected to play Mary and St. Joseph. Sometimes the woman representing Mary is actually expecting a baby and may ride on a real donkey. Ahead of time, certain homes are designated as “inns,” and the procession begins perhaps at a local parish. “Mary” and “Joseph” are led by someone carrying a paper lantern and may be accompanied by people dressed as angels, shepherds, or even children carrying poinsettias. Often, music is also part of the procession.

The group then travels throughout the local community to the “inns” and knocks on the doors of each home, usually one per day for nine days. The residents open the door, sing a song, and welcome “Mary” and “Joseph” into their home, where they and their guests proceed to gather around a nativity and pray the Rosary together. At the end of each evening, devotees sing Christmas carols and share a meal, sometimes accompanied with children opening up a pinata with candy inside.

Different countries and cultures hold variations of a traditional Las Posadas celebration. For example, in colder climates, the procession may be held within someone’s home rather than outside. Other regions end the celebration with the presentation of Santa Claus bearing gifts for the children (Oregon) or by sharing a hot drink called Atole together (New York).

The first time I’d heard of Las Posadas was when my husband, Ben, and I attended a parish that was densely populated with those of the Latino and Hispanic cultures. Because Ben grew up in the southwestern region of the country, he was already familiar with the reenactment. But, to a native Midwesterner like myself, the pomp and circumstance surrounding such an event was fascinating to me.

Though Ben and I never attended Las Posadas, we were always warmly invited to do so. I remember catching a glimpse as the pageant participants lined up in the church parking lot one frigid December evening. The woman playing Mary was dressed the part in her simple blue gown and head covering. She was, indeed, sitting on a donkey as the man who played St. Joseph stood close by.

I saw children holding paper flowers in a variety of colorful hues. There were musicians with guitars and percussion instruments, dressed in their fine regalia. Some participants carried candles, though gingerly, due to the gusty force of wind that evening. The whole affair was intriguing to me, and I noticed the festivities were well warranted. It brought alive a well-worn Christmas tale that many of us have come to sleepily rehearse once a year.

Those who participated in Las Posadas were enthusiastic, exuberant, and eager to engage in sharing this moment with our community. Since our parish was nestled in the downtown area of a fairly small town, passersby and others driving past were sure to notice that something cherished was happening – a small but important reminder to every one of the arduous trek both Mary and St. Joseph took together from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

As I observed the pageant actors, I noticed their somber but expectant faces. They were already entering into a type of meditation as they prepared to play their roles with accuracy and reverence. It was such a humble blessing to witness.

We can all glean something spiritually valuable from either watching or becoming active participants in Las Posadas. Because it is a religious event that combines both contemplation and celebration, we can enter into it with the intention of enriching our Advent experience each year.

I think often about the extreme poverty into which Jesus was born and the incredible sacrifice that both the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph made to keep Him safe and to be obedient to God the Father. During Christmases when I have been pregnant, this reality becomes more striking to me. Pregnancy is not comfortable, especially when you are in your final trimester. I wonder how Mary managed to sit on a donkey (with no back support and few breaks to rest) for all those miles through the desert and on rocky ground.

She obviously spent those long weeks pondering, meditating on the gift of the Incarnate Word within her. As a mother, I can understand the instinct to protect and cherish the developing life within. What were her questions? What did she ask God the Father during those long days and nights?

And St. Joseph, too, the protector and provider for the family, must have been burdened heavily by knowing that he was responsible for his family through all the tumult and windstorms, potential danger from predatory animals, and thieves who might have struck them during their sojourn. Even more, this responsibility as the leader of the family was even greater for him, since he was chosen to be the foster father of the Son of God!

What has always been most unsettling for me, however, was that no one welcomed the Holy Family once they reached Bethlehem. Our Lady was in labor, and Jesus’ birth was imminent. But everyone in the community closed their doors and would not accommodate their need. Such was their poverty of spirit more evident in that moment than their material poverty.

And we, in our extreme need, can and should approach the manger with all of this in mind. There are many times in our own lives when we do not know where to turn, to whom we can trust to help us in our great need. And we feel lonely, abandoned, forsaken, lost. During those times, we can recall the difficult journey of Mary and St. Joseph, begging for their intercession to lead us to a place or person of welcome and reprieve.

Even more, it’s important for each of us to consider the times when we’ve turned our backs on Jesus and Mary. When did we close the door of our hearts to their beckoning? Have we ever rejected our neighbor who turned to us for help? If so, we can also take that spiritual journey with Mary and Joseph into our own lives and reflect on the ways we can grow in charity this Advent and Christmas season.

The Christmas story, of course, goes much deeper in our hearts when we are truly ready to awaken something new within our souls, to shake us out of our spiritual slumber and become vigilant, zealous, and earnest in our devotion to the Christ-Child. Our own vulnerability is often mirrored in the beauty of Christ’s birth because we face Him as an infant and instantly recognize the gift of His humanity wrapped in divinity.

Each of our Las Posadas experiences will be different, much like the unique representations of Christmas pageants worldwide. If our hearts are open, we will discover who we are in the story and where our own journey is leading us.