Though Anglos may be familiar with the 12 days of Christmas, in Latin America it's all about the nine-day festival known Las Posadas. Running December 16 through 24, it commemorates Mary and Joseph's struggle to find shelter before the birth of Jesus. Communities in Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala and the U.S. celebrate with music, dance, food and dramatic reenactments of the Nativity.
"When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, one of the religious order's main roles was to convert all of the indigenous people to Christianity," explains Cesareo Moreno, chief curator at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. "But they were faced with millions of people who didn't read. So, one of the best ways to have them learn the story [of the Nativity] was to act it out." It's from that conversion effort that Las Posadas, which means lodgings or accomodations, was born. It combines Catholic ritual with Aztec traditions already in place when Spanish colonists arrived, like the winter solstice festival.
On each night of the festival, one family in each neighborhood hosts a gathering at their home, acting as the "innkeepers." Then neighbors coming visit as "pilgrims," mirroring Mary and Joseph's voyage from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
"The outside group walks down the street, knocking on different doors and singing a song that says we're looking for posadas, or a room," Moreno tells Ndelible. Often community members are cast as Joseph and Mary, with the woman playing Mary riding an actual donkey as they seek safe haven, "The people inside will say 'There's no room for you,' and the procession goes to the next home, until they finally arrive at the family hosting Las Posadas that particular evening."
The celebration also includes traditional Mexican fare, including ponche con piquete, a warm fruit punch made with aromatic spices like cinnamon and tamarind pods and usually spiked with brandy. But the sanctity of the holiday always comes first.
"I remember when I was younger going to Las Posadas in Mexico, there was a big joke where my aunt used to say, 'Nobody gets to eat or drink until they do their rosary,'" Moreno recalls. "So it was a sacred time, as well as a celebration of family."
One centerpiece for Las Posadas is a piñata in the shape of a seven-pointed star, with each ray representing one of the seven deadly sins. A "sinner" is blindfolded, representing blind faith, with the successful triumph over sin represented by breaking the piñata and a "blessing" in the form of the candy showering out.
"In the U.S., a lot of the celebrations that revolve around Christmas aren't religious any more, whether it's Santa Claus or the Christmas tree," adds Moreno. "They've replaced the Christian imagery and ideas. [But] Las Posadas is focused squarely on the birth of Christ."