In Mexico the tradition of Las Posadas begins on December 16th and is carried out in a series of festivities that have been held in Mexico since colonial times. The origin of this tradition is of a religious nature, in which Joseph’s and Mary’s pilgrimage to Bethlehem is represented; however, since the end of the 18th century festivities have been part of popular culture, organized by families in their houses.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, the Aztecs celebrated the arrival of Huitzilopochtli, who was the god of war. These solemn festivals took place during the month of panquetzaliztli, equivalent to the month of December, and lasted 20 days beginning on the sixth day of the month. Festivities included honoring their god by putting flags on the fruit trees and banners in the main temple. This tradition was known by the name of “raising of flags”. The people congregated in the courtyards of the temples and waited for the arrival of the winter solstice. On the night of the 24th and during the course of the 25th there were celebrations in all the houses. Food was offered to the guests, and they also were given some small pasta statues called “tzoatl”.
The anthropologist Fernando Híjar tells us that the tradition of Las Posadas commenced with the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico. The religious leaders in charge of the evangelization of the people replaced the cult of the god of war with the European practice of preparation for Christmas, focusing on Christianity. At first these festivities were called “Christmas Bonus Masses”, and since then they have been held from December 16th to the 24th in the atriums of churches and convents.
The celebration consists of proclaiming the mass together with Biblical passages and representations alluding to Christmas. Additionally, small gifts are given to the attendees, known as aguinaldos, or bonuses. The people congregate in the courtyards of the temples and wait for the arrival of the winter solstice. On the night of the 24th and during the course of the next day there are festivities in all the houses, in which food and some small gifts are offered to the guests.
Throughout time, the same people were adding more attractive elements to these celebrations such as candles, sparklers and piñatas. Ultimately they adopted these parties into their neighborhoods and houses. This transition from the temple to the streets was allowed by the church in order for these festivities to have a greater diffusion among the inhabitants. So the tradition has been transformed according to the culture of each zone or region of Mexico.
Once the guests to this celebration have gathered, they prepare to represent the request for accommodation made by Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary on their pilgrimage from the city of Nazareth to Bethlehem. To symbolize this event, the guests make two groups. One group must leave the house accompanied by figures representing the pilgrims, Joseph and Mary, who ask for lodging at the door singing the following litany:
IN THE NAME OF HEAVEN I ASK YOU TO OPEN THE DOOR, BECAUSE MY BELOVED WIFE CANNOT WALK ANY FURTHER.
The people who stay inside must deny entrance at first, forcing the pilgrims to continue asking for an inn three more times. They play the part of the innkeepers and say,
THERE IS NO ROOM FOR RENT HERE. GO ON, I CAN’T OPEN MY DOOR FOR YOU. DON’T PRETEND TO BE SOMEONE YOU ARE NOT. YOU ARE A SCOUNDREL.
To culminate this part of the tradition, pilgrims are granted asylum with the following litany:
ENTER, HOLY PILGRIMS. PILGRIMS, RECEIVE THIS CORNER, WHICH, EVEN THOUGH MY DWELLING IS POOR, I GIVE IT TO YOU WITH MY HEART.
It is important to mention that during the pilgrimage, all the members carry candles and a booklet with the litanies. Participants can read the litanies in one voice.
Once entrance to the inn is granted, the coexistence among the participants begins. It reaches its maximum splendor at the moment of breaking a piñata, which must be full of fruit, sweets, and snacks. The role of the piñata in Las Posadas symbolizes the triumph of faith over sin. It must have seven points on it that represent the seven deadly sins. Sweets and fruits symbolize the grace of God. The blindfold is faith. God is represented by the stick, and the people around it symbolize the church members who will show the way to overcome sin.
In these days of a pandemic, access to all the inns in many places such as our Church is suspended, closed for the safety of all. In a season without a pandemic, for many Hispanic and Latino children these are very special days, full of happiness and joy for all. During these days’ children receive many sweets and warm foods such as tamales and corn atole or hot chocolate at night. During the cold and dark of winter, with its candles or sparklers, people are happy, listening to beautiful Christmas carols while waiting for Christmas.
At San José First Church, in December 2016 we started this beautiful tradition so that the Latinos of downtown San José could remember their traditions and teach their children about Christianity. In their hearts they can revisit the stories about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in the way Latinos live it in their countries. These days are special for them and their children. The traditions are the same for many countries, cities, towns and villages in Latin America.
I have been thinking a lot about the children of the El Maguey neighborhood and how very sad Christmas time is going to be for them. It’s not that I feel like I can be a super hero and fix everything, nor am I a saint. I’m just a rural shepherd who wants all people to be happy—especially the children, since I was also a child. El Maguey does not have many traditions since it is a 17-year-old colony founded by the Mexican government. They decided to make small houses for some of the people of Atotonilco El Alto, a nearby 480-year-old city that became overcrowded. They looked for the poorest people from different low-income neighborhoods and populated this colony with all these people. They are often discriminated against, since everyone knows that people were relocated there as a mode of segregation.
My house is located in this colony and serves as the headquarters of my church, Cristo Vive, which provides light and hope for the people who live there.
In consideration of the fact that I still have vacation time from church, and after much praying and asking God for direction, I have made the decision to go to Mexico. Besides taking care of some personal matters there, I can be in El Maguey in time to celebrate the first two services of the year, and broadcast them on Facebook. In this way Latino members of our downtown church can also have their time of worship on those days.
In the last 6 months, the Methodist Women’s organization and the members of First Church have made donations to buy grocery bags for the neediest people during this pandemic. This provides a way for children to have a plate with food at home. During my visit I will be helping the leaders of Cristo Vive to distribute the food. I am looking forward to greeting people with a gesture of respect and love from San José First and to pray for them and for the neighborhood.
I will also be able to carry out the celebration of the Epiphany or the Day of the Magi on January 6, 2021. My plan is to arrange to have three trucks with three men characterized as the Three Kings and to tour the entire colony, visiting all the streets. We will play Christmas carols and deliver sweets and toys to the children we meet on the street. Using this method will ensure that children do not accumulate in one place and will provide them with a surprise, making this a day that is happy and special.
I am very aware that we are in a pandemic, which is dangerous for them and for me. So I will be taking all the necessary measures to keep a healthy distance and follow security protocols. My faith is placed in God, so that I know I can stay well and return healthy and full of joy and have satisfaction in my heart for doing what God asks me to do. He wants me to love every human being with respect and solidarity. From my hometown I will be praying for you and your families so that next year is better for everyone.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 2021, sisters and brothers in Christ!
Pastor Gerardo Vázquez-Padilla