Las Posadas observances adapt, recall Latin American celebration of the nativity

December 16, 2010

For 10-year-old Jacquelin Garcia, portraying Mary on Dec. 16 "felt nice," even though she shivered in the dark and cold and was turned away from door after door during a Las Posadas celebration at the downtown St. Athanasius Church in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

"It was sad, too. It reminded me of what happened to Mary and Joseph. But I wanted to say thank you because I got to do it," added Garcia, during the first of nine days of the traditional Latin American festivities culminating with Christmas Eve celebrations of the birth of Christ.

Wearing a long blue robe and white veil, Garcia carried a small statue of the Virgin Mary alongside similarly attired Danny Buatits, 9, aka Joseph. They led a procession of about 40 parishioners who moved from door to door outside the church, offering prayers, songs and Scripture readings while another 40 remained inside and denied them entry.

"Las Posadas is a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem and search for lodging," said the Rev. Rene Barraza, St. Athanasius' canon pastor, at a meal of chicken tostadas following the service.

"We will do the same thing for nine nights. Every night more people come, some from the church, some from outside the church."

The Spanish word "posadas" translates to inns or lodging, and the celebration focuses on the real meaning of the season, he said. Many of his congregation, which averages about 100 worshippers on Sundays, hail from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Ecuador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

"Many people don't have nativities in their homes, just Christmas trees. This reminds them that the principal meaning of this time is the birth of Jesus."

From New York to Los Angeles, congregations observe Las Posadas although, as with many other church traditions, individual celebrations have undergone local adaptations.

In Poughkeepsie, in the Episcopal Diocese of New York, the Rev. Rigoberto Avila-Nativi on Dec. 13 was preparing for Las Posadas after completing a nine-day round of similar home visitations for the Dec. 12 observance of the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Avila-Nativi said officiating at both a 5:30 p.m. and an 8 p.m. posada each night enriches community among the two congregations in his charge -- Iglesia la Virgen de Guadalupe, a mission congregation of Christ Church, in Poughkeepsie and Iglesia Santa Cruz, a mission congregation of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in nearby Kingston.

At each celebration participants, including volunteers dressed as Mary and Joseph and sometimes carrying a statue of the infant Jesus, gather at the church. After prayers, they travel to a different host home each evening. They offer candles, incense, and prayers outside the home.

"The families invite us to enter and we do prayers and singing -- it's all focused around the little baby Jesus."

Afterwards, worshippers eat a meal or drink a hot Atole, made of cornmeal and raw sugar, he said. The host family feeds the worshippers and takes the statue of Jesus to another home for the next evening's observance. Until the ninth and last night when "we go to the church. It's Christmas Eve and the last family brings the baby Jesus to the church."

It is also an important reminder for many of his parishioners, mostly from Mexico, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, "of what their hometown would be doing to be part of this big event.

"This is the time Joseph and Mary were traveling to Bethlehem. This is the point of the story and the people feel they need this experience to show their children the traditions."

Grace-St. Luke's Church in downtown Memphis in the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee has no Spanish-speaking members but has adopted Las Posadas as a tradition, said Donna Sanders, a junior high Sunday school teacher and the event coordinator.

The celebration, now in its seventh year, has been adapted to fit local needs, she added. Hectic schedules and frigid temperatures transformed it into a one-day event and brought the procession in from the cold last year, Sanders said.

A candlelight service precedes a lively procession and singing. "We sneak in Christmas carols even though it's still Advent," Sanders said. A series of short plays keep the focus on the reason for the season and participants get to dress up "as anyone who might have been at the manger," including lots of angels and animals.

"It puts the emphasis back on the birth of Christ, instead of all the present-buying and commercialism. It's fun and it gets the kids' attention back to Jesus being born, the angels, the whole story and that was really our goal.

"Everyone is encouraged to come dressed as their favorite nativity character. It's fun but meaningful ... a time to get together informally but also to incorporate some of the spirit of Christmas because it gets so hairy during the holidays."

Anywhere from 80 to 115 attend and afterwards participants enjoy a traditional Mexican feast, dancing to the strains of a mariachi band and piñatas, she said.

The music and the food and the dancing hooked Cecilia Hartney, 8, and a student at Grace-St. Luke's parish day school, who said she's been an angel and a dove but this year is the Star of Bethlehem.

"I wanted to be the star because the wise men followed the star to the manger and because the angels tell the shepherd to follow the star to the stable in Bethlehem," Cecilia said during a Dec. 13 telephone interview from her home. "I'm going to have a navy blue T-shirt and a star and other white glowing stars behind it," she added.

Her older sister Aynsley, 12, a camel this year, said that while portraying Mary a few years ago, "I realized what actually happened. That Mary and Joseph went around and people didn't let them stay at their inn because it was full."

She also realized something else: "When we go to Las Posadas we get to know each other a little better," Aynsley said. "We hang out and talk and dance and it's fun."

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