Singing echoes through the softly lit streets of the towns, cities, and neighborhoods of Mexico as residents prepare for Christmas, through the para-liturgical tradition of Las Posadas. Processions of townspeople, led by a couple dressed as Mary and Joseph, wind their way through the streets, going from home to home asking for “posada” (shelter). Finally, the procession is welcomed into a home, and the people pray together as the “fiesta” commences.
Las Posadas is a Mexican Catholic Advent tradition that marks the beginning of the Christmas season. Taking place from the 16th-24th of December every year, Las Posadas is a nine day community celebration in preparation for the birthday of Christ; a novena that is a mix of religious devotion and relaxation. Ultimately, Las Posadas is about accepting Christ, the Bread of Life, into one’s home and heart. It functions as an extension of the Eucharist, catalyzed by the fiesta culture. Food, both physical and spiritual, is an important element of the fiesta, because it is nearly impossible to have a Christian festival without food.
Las Posadas is a fiesta; a religious fiesta in the sense that it provides sacred time and space to show a sacred event. The fiestas of Las Posadas reenact Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, a journey that is considered sacred because it directly led to the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. Also, the fiestas gather the community in a ritual that parallels the structure of a Mass, emphasizing two more sacred elements of Las Posadas: the community and the Eucharist.
Evangelization in a New World
Las Posadas began in 1578 in Mexico in the village of San Agustín Acolman. Augustinian missionaries received permission from Pope Sixtus V to celebrate special Masses in order to make Christianity more attractive and to evangelize the Aztecs. Because of the syncretism that occurred when the missionaries introduced Catholicism to indigenous Americans, Las Posadas resembles the Aztec celebration of the birth of the sun and war god, Huitzilopochitli. The missionaries wanted a way to teach the gospel and extend the Eucharist to a large, illiterate population and needed a way that the Aztecs would accept, so they took advantage of the timing of the birth of Huitzilopochitli to introduce the birthday of their own important, sacred figure, Jesus Christ. In las misas del Aguinaldo (special Masses for the Advent season), they included nativity scenes and lights, sang villancicos (Christmas carols), and broke a piñata. The celebration of Las Posadas grew from these original Masses. Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, as told in Luke 2:1-7, is featured in Las Posadas, a celebration that includes elements similar to those of the celebration for Huitzilopochitli. (All night and during the day after Huitzilopochitli’s birthday, people customarily had parties in many houses throughout the town, at which guests delighted in foods and statues of their gods made from blue corn dough.)
Days of Prayer and Celebration
Las Posadas begins on the evening of December 16th and ends on Christmas Eve. These nine days dedicated to prayer are called a “Novena.” Originally, a novena referred to the nine days of prayer before the Feast of Pentecost, but in Las Posadas it also represents the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy. Each night, a young woman and a young man – usually teenagers – dress as Mary and Joseph and go to three different, predetermined houses, asking for posada (shelter). They are accompanied by a candle-lit procession that includes musicians, children dressed as angels and shepherds, and anyone else who would like to join. At the first two houses, the procession of peregrinos (pilgrims) is turned away by groups of people inside the houses, who play the part of the innkeepers who denied Mary and Joseph shelter. The interactions between the peregrinos and the “innkeepers” happen in the form of call-and-response songs. Through several verses, the peregrinos ask for shelter and are denied entry by the innkeepers. The last verse is sung only when the procession is welcomed into the last house.
At the last house, the peregrinos are welcomed and the whole community gathers for prayers and a party. Once all the peregrinos have entered, everyone prays the Act of Contrition, asking for forgiveness for their sins. Often, they will also pray the rosary, and/or hold a short prayer service. This part of the fiesta mirrors the Liturgy of the Word (the first part of a Mass). Soon the prayerful ritual gives way to food, games, and dancing. Nevertheless, ritual that promotes spiritual communion is still present in the fiestas, and parallels the Liturgy of the Eucharist (the second part of a Mass) — sharing a meal and celebrating the forgiveness of sin in the Eucharist. The fiestas grow in excitement with each passing night, but at each are ritual elements, including food and drink, candles, Nativity scenes, and piñatas filled with fruits, nuts, and candies.
Piñatas, Sin and Forgiveness
Traditional piñatas are shaped like stars and have seven points, each point representing a cardinal sin. People swing at the piñata with their eyes covered by blindfolds to signify their true faith in God and His mercy. Thus, when they break the piñata and are showered with sweet candies, the people act out the experience of conquering sin and receiving forgiveness and blessing from God. This is also a dramatization of how everyone’s sins are forgiven during the Eucharist, when Catholics remember how Christ died so that the sins of the world would be forgiven and confess their own sin through the Confiteor. Although perhaps not broken every night, the piñata nevertheless demonstrates the way food is used to teach religion, extend the message of the Eucharist into the home, and catalyze the fiesta spirit.
Sharing Food and Creating Communitas
The fiesta spirit continues through each of the nine days, never seeming to lag. On Christmas Eve, the final stop for the peregrinos is the church, where they celebrate La Misa de Gallo, a Midnight Mass, in which they share in the Body and Blood of Christ – a shorter but still powerful religious fiesta in which a sacred meal is re-enacted. After the Mass, the longest fiesta of Las Posadas commences. Along with a piñata and the small dessert items served at the fiestas on each of the previous nights, people prepare and share their favorite foods at the reception after Mass. Typical foods include tamales, pozole (pork soup), sopa de albóndigas (meat-ball soup), pollo con mole (chicken in mole sauce), bacalao (codfish stew), natillas (a type of thick custard), and buñelos (deep-fried pancakes sprinkled with sugar). Champurado (spiced hot chocolate), atole (a corn based drink), and ponche (punch) are also served. Although these are some of the more traditional foods consumed during the Advent and Christmas seasons, there are no foods that are specifically reserved for Las Posadas. Therefore, it does not matter what food is served, since the sharing of food itself symbolizes and strengthens the community.
Las Posadas makes the Gospel come alive in a cultural experience of spiritual communion in which the people welcome Christ into their homes and lives. This spiritual communion results from the transformation of Jesus’ body, “…the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51), in the Eucharist into spiritual food. The ritual of Las Posadas reflects the mystery of the Eucharist because the people of the community act as living bread through their acts of hospitality and generosity in caring for others. Additionally, the fact that Las Posadas is a religious fiesta, and thus directly tied to Catholic Hispanic fiesta culture, draws the community together and builds the spirit of communitas. Communitas is a deep spirit of community – a spiritual communion where all the members are united in the same consciousness, usually through a ritual. Las Posadas is a way in which Mexican Catholics realize communitas through the Eucharist and fiesta. Thus, the fiesta catalyzes, yet also results from, the ritual of Las Posadas and is thoroughly intertwined with food, both spiritual and physical; physical food is the visceral symbol that gathers the community and provides the base for rituals, in which it is transformed into spiritual food. Therefore, it nourishes the body and the spirit.
Although there are traditions around the world in many different religions that fulfill the same functions, Las Posadas is one of the best examples of the way Mexican Catholics have taken the Eucharist and made it part of their cultural experience through the fiesta. Today, the fiesta spirit is spreading beyond Mexicans and Latinos. In some cases non-Latinos are attracted to the religious and spiritual aspects of Las Posadas. For others, Latinos and non-Latinos, a more secularized version of Las Posadas, in which the prayerful aspects are downplayed or ignored and the focus is on family and community, is more comfortable and attractive. Nevertheless, although those who celebrate a secular version of Las Posadas think that they are leaving Catholicism behind, they cannot escape the fact that even in any secular form, Las Posadas is still a religious fiesta celebrating and strengthening the spiritual connection between community members. Despite dropping all of the prayers, they are living the communitas of the Eucharist in their celebration, since even the secularized ritual parallels the structure of a Mass. Thus, without realizing it, many people are attracted to the religious and spiritual aspect of Las Posadas. What they experience is a community dimension of the Eucharist as seen in the transformation of profane (non-sacred) food into sacred nourishment for the spirit and community. Through that shared experience of celebrating a religious fiesta, people of all cultures strengthen their bond with their communities, uniting community, religion, and food.