The Posada invites communities to prepare for Christmas and celebrate its true meaning
by Lizette M. Lantigua
A man and woman dressed as Mary and Joseph process down Superior Street in Chicago as part of a Posada celebration at Holy Name Cathedral.
During a cold December evening, passersby watched as Mary and Joseph searched for lodging. But this was not the little town of Bethlehem. It was rural Franklin, Ohio, and the town’s bundled-up residents carried candles as they reenacted that special night with a special celebration: La Posada. While its name is foreign to many, this Hispanic tradition is becoming mainstream, as parishes and K of C councils use it as an opportunity to focus on the true meaning of Christmas.
The Christmas Posada, celebrated in many Latin American countries today, is a prayer, a play and a party all in one. The name means “inn” or “shelter” in Spanish and is generally celebrated with a novena from Dec. 16-24 in preparation for the birth of Christ. These nine days symbolize Mary’s pregnancy, the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, and their search for a place to stay — as recounted in Luke 2:1-7.
“Advent often gets overshadowed by the rush of Christmas preparation,” said Matt Whiteley of Father Charles E. Mentrup Council 14400 in Franklin. “In the midst of the rush, the Posada gives us a chance to reflect on the journey toward Bethlehem; a journey toward the place where God revealed himself to the world as the baby Jesus.”
THE TRADITION DEVELOPS
The Posada celebration can be traced back to the 16th century amid the zeal of evangelization in the New World, as Spanish missionaries sought to bring the Christian faith to natives. The special prayers offered on the Posada’s nine consecutive days are attributed to St. Ignatius Loyola, and St. John of the Cross later made a religious pageant out of the event called Pastorelas. These reenactments of the Christmas story were a way to evangelize the pagan Indians, who could not read or write.
“The Posada gives us a chance to reflect on the journey toward Bethlehem; a journey toward the place where God revealed himself to the world as the baby Jesus.”
Although countries throughout Latin America celebrate the Posada, the tradition varies with local customs. In Mexico, for example, the Posada starts with a procession of children and adults reenacting Mary and Joseph’s journey. Half of the crowd takes the role of Mary and Joseph asking for shelter, while the other half acts as the innkeepers denying them a place to stay. After being turned away several times, one homeowner grants entrance to the whole group, and the party begins with food and singing. While adults eat, children break open a piñata, traditionally a seven-pointed star filled with small bags of candy, fruit and pieces of sugar cane.
In Colombia, the tradition is similar, with emphasis on the children’s participation. On many occasions, the rosary is incorporated into the event. The Honduran tradition includes theatrical presentations of the shepherds’ journey and their challenges along the way to witness the birth of Christ. And in Ecuador, the novena is prayed around a Nativity scene in people’s homes and ends with the lighting of a Christmas tree.
The Philippines, a Spanish colony for more than three centuries, also celebrates a version of the Posada. Like in other countries, a novena runs from Dec. 16-24. Local church bells begin to ring at dawn, inviting all to 5 a.m. Mass. In some provinces, there is also a pageant on Christmas Eve known as the Panunuluyan, which reenacts Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay. The event culminates at a church, where they are finally given shelter. Participants also carry lanterns to light the way.
A girl performs with a musical group during a Posada celebration.
As the Hispanic population in North America has grown, the Posada celebration has spread. Initially introduced to areas highly populated by Hispanics, the tradition has since expanded to other parts of the United States and Canada.
“The event was very well attended at our parish,” said Whiteley of the Posada held last year at St. Mary Church in Franklin. “Many parishioners commented that the event was the most beautiful and unique activity that they had participated in for a long time.”
The Ohio council organized the Posada to coincide with the parish’s Advent evening prayers. Two Knights carried images of Mary and Joseph, while the crowd began at the parish office to look for lodging. The participants stopped at different areas around the church, knocking and being refused entry. When they were not reciting prayers, they sang Christmas songs. And when they reached a grotto with an image of the Blessed Mother, they prayed a decade of the rosary.
As Whiteley explained, “It highlighted the Order’s devotion to the Blessed Mother, and it demonstrated that the Knights of Columbus, usually thought of as a service organization, also works as a faith builder in the community.”
The parishioners finally gained entry at the church, where they said the Advent evening prayers. The night culminated with a party at the parish center. Hot chocolate, soda and finger foods were served, and the children broke open a piñata filled with candy.
According to Grand Knight Rick Trainer, the Posada broadened the parishioners’ cultural awareness. “In fact, this was the first time that most of us had even heard of the event,” he said. “It encouraged us to think about how others celebrate the birth of our Savior and that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.”
OPEN DOORS, OPEN HEARTS
More than 1,100 miles south in the rural town of Davie, Fla., St. Mark’s Council 13045 has celebrated the Posada since 2007. The council erects a Nativity scene at the Davie Town Hall as part of the Order’s “Keep Christ in Christmas” initiative. Jorge Egües, chairman of the council’s Keep Christ in Christmas effort, said the Town of Davie initially expressed apprehension.
“At first they were concerned of legal action for displaying the Nativity,” said Egües. “I told them that I have a right to express my faith as an American citizen.”
He cited the 1999 case American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey v. Schundler, in which the court ruled that Nativity scenes are permissible as long as they are accompanied by other seasonal items and a sign stating that the display is celebrating the city’s cultural and ethnic diversity.
Once the matter was sorted out, Egües called fellow council member Alex Correa to spread the word among Knights and other parishioners to make sure that the Nativity display was well visited. Correa, a native of Colombia, organized a council-sponsored Posada with prayers and songs in English and Spanish.
“It is a night of celebration,” said Correa. “This group of Catholic families from Latin American countries, along with fellow American families, gets together in the name of the baby Jesus to pray, celebrate his birth and enjoy family time with each other.”
The event in Davie, which has grown every year, includes a live Nativity scene, children and adults playing maracas, tambourines and guitars, and traditional foods that reflect the many nationalities of the parish.
Deborah Czubkowski, a native of Puerto Rico, has participated several times. “It is a great way to reconnect with our traditions and a way to teach our children about how we used to celebrate Christmas,” she said.
The Posada tradition continues to spread, giving people a privileged opportunity to spiritually prepare for the birth of Christ. As Pope John Paul II said in a 1999 Angelus message, “The Word who found a dwelling in Mary’s womb comes to knock on the heart of every person with singular intensity this Christmas.”
If you listen carefully, you will hear this sentiment echoed in various languages throughout the world as pilgrims sing a popular Posada song: “Humble pilgrims / Jesus, Mary and Joseph / I give my soul for them / And my heart as well.”
Lizette M. Lantigua writes from South Florida.