Last night, in parish neighborhoods all over Mexico and the U.S., Christian faithful began begging from house to house looking for a place to stay in imitation and remembrance of the poor Holy Family. This is the tradition of Las Posadas. The word posada simply means inn or lodging. The tradition began in the late 16th century by Spanish Missionaries in Mexico to replace old pagan religious ceremonies with Christian catechetical practices. Pope Sixtus V issued a papal bull to Friar Diego de Soria allowing the priests of the New World to celebrate what were called misas de aguinaldo, or “Christmas gift masses.” They celebrated one per day during the nine days leading up to Christmas. As the years went on the faithful elaborated the celebrations to include paraliturgical rituals to express their faith further.
The posadas begin sometime in the evening after the sun has set. The faithful meet with their parish priest, usually at their local Church, and begin walking to designated houses with a young man and woman dressed up as St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary leading the crowd. On the pilgrimage, the faithful pray the rosary and sing traditional religious hymns, such as Pidiendo Posada (Begging for Shelter). When they arrive at the first three or so houses they knock and ask to enter but are rejected. Both sides of the door recite a memorized script close to how the exchange is thought to have gone between Mary and Joseph and the Innkeepers of Bethlehem. At the last house, where they are let in, all the faithful peregrinos, or pilgrims, cheer and the host family invites everyone in and offers them food and hot punch. The celebrations usually conclude with children bursting open a piñata representing the seven deadly sins. This is what Las Posadas look like today.
How appropriate such a ritual is when preparing for the Incarnation of the savior! The real-life engagement of the tradition awakens the incarnational aspect of Christianity. When one makes these nightly pilgrimages he is drawn more deeply into the mystery of the Incarnation. It reminds one of the poverty of this short life, being rejected by the world going door to door. It also teaches the participating community about the Church militant who pilgrimages together, led by Jesus and Mary, but also waits for the second coming of Jesus. Stepping out of our homes and having to suffer the elements, we are made more aware of the difficulties the Holy Family had when preparing for Christ’s birth and what true humility it took for him to enter the world in this manner.
While some of us may not have the ability to attend Las Posadas, we all can be enriched by the knowledge of the Church’s many and varied traditions. Over the centuries the Lord has graced the Church with many different ways to draw us closer to himself, especially sacramentals such as the use of Advent candles and wreaths. May the many different ways the Church prepares for the coming of her savior profit us with a new engagement with the mystery of God made man.
Image: Michael Rieser, On the Eve of the Birth of Christ