Las Posadas are a nine evening observance celebrated by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans beginning December 16, and concluding on Christmas Eve. On these evenings people meet and walk from house to house, recreating Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. Also called a novena, the nine nights represents Mary’s nine months of pregnancy. The dramatization of this historic event was used to illustrate this portion of the Bible to illiterate populations, first in Europe, and later in the Americas.
Spanish missionaries brought this custom to the people of Mexico to coincide with the Aztec winter solstice festival celebrating the December birth of the sun god Huitzilopochtli. By pairing the two festivals, the birth of Christ was introduced to the people of Mexico in the 1500’s and was thought to be a little more palatable to non Christians.
Although the Posada is seen as a Catholic observance, Protestants also celebrate in much the same ways. Traditionally, once a group has formed, two persons, a man and a woman, re-create the roles of Joseph and Mary on their journey to the inn. Others join in as shepherds, angels and pilgrims. Homes along the route are pre-selected as the inns that rejected the couple. Each “innkeeper” welcomes the travelers in to pray at their nativity scene, and enjoy a libation.
In some cases, the procession begins in the town square, and travels to one house each night for eight nights and culminates at the local church on Christmas Eve.
Other Posadas are celebrated on a single evening and proceed to nine homes, each with a small tasty offering. Some Posadas conclude with the singing of carols and children busting open a seven-pointed star-shaped piñata filled with sweets, the points representing the seven cardinal sins.
The name posada has now become synonym with christmas party, so its common to hear people calling their holiday party posada just because it’s on December.
The tradition of the poinsettia plant, called “noche buena” or “good night” refers to Christmas Eve, originated in Mexico. Poinsettias are placed prominently in all Christmas displays whether they are in churches, homes or businesses.
Most Mexican families didn’t enjoy the tradition of Christmas trees until the invasion of expats from Europe and the United States. The trees are now very popular and Christmas tree farms are sprouting up in Mexico to handle the increasing popularity although most of them are still imported from the United States. Artificial trees are also quite popular here. In 2009, Guinness cited the world’s largest Christmas tree (362 feet tall, 330 tons), at Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma.
Crèches, (nativity scenes), are exhibited by December 12 and remain until February 2, to coincide with religions holidays. They may be small enough to fit atop a small television set and feature Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, or they may be a humongous display set up on sheets of plywood, featuring, as they say, a cast of thousands, including angels, shepherds, wise men, and a selection of barnyard animals and strolling musicians. It’s important to note that baby Jesus doesn’t show up until after midnight on Christmas Eve. I keep mine hidden behind the cable box. Until then his crib is empty. I used to think the public displays I saw without the baby Jesus were the victims of a robbery.
Pastorelas, “shepherd’s plays” recount the story of Christ’s birth from Angel Gabriel’s proclamation to the shepherds who then follow the Star of Bethlehem, all the while battling the forces of Lucifer who tries to keep them from their goal. In the end, evil forces are destroyed and the shepherds arrive in Bethlehem as scheduled. The plays may be solemn, musical, or laden with jokes.
The culmination of Christmas Eve is the Mass of the Rooster, named for the rooster who was said to announce the birth of Christ. As many parishioners have fasted all evening, a post-mass feast may be enjoyed by families before gifts are opened to end the late evening’s celebration. Christmas Day is celebrated by visiting and receiving friends and family, and staying reasonably quiet, as Mexicans big Christmas celebration is always on Christmas Eve.