Piñatas, poinsettias and “ponche” (punch) help set the mood for the Christmas celebration of Las Posadas. Predominately a Catholic tradition brought to the Americas by the Spaniards, it is an important cultural celebration in several Latin American countries.
For nine days, from December 16–24, families hold reenactments as a remembrance of the journey Mary and Joseph made from Nazareth to the little town of Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Along the way, they searched for lodging in inns, or “posadas.”
Traditionally a candlelight parade starts at dusk. Children and adults dress up as Mary, Joseph, shepherds and angels. It is a great honor to host a posada in one’s home. The group processes from place to place, knocking on each door and singing a song asking for shelter. After being told there is “no room in the inn” at many homes along the way, the journey culminates at a final home, where everyone is invited inside for refreshments.
Decorations at the house parties are glittery, yet very symbolic. The star-shaped piñatas have seven spikes representing the seven deadly sins that must be destroyed by a masked person who has blind faith. Multi-generational guests engage in storytelling or praying the rosary in large groups. On the last day, called “Buena Noche,” or Christmas Eve, a figure of the baby Jesus is placed in the nativity.
“It is a perfect combination of faith, family, friends,” reminisces Gloria Torres-Herbeck, who is originally from Guadalajara, Mexico. “It really brings everyone together,” Torres-Herbeck now teaches middle-school Spanish and educates her students about Latin heritage.
Las Posadas is just one of several Latin American celebrations held during the holiday season. Each is deeply rooted in religion and emphasizes family and friends coming together. The whole community is welcome.
“‘Novenarios’ are an ancient tradition of devotional prayers repeated for nine days,” according to the Bienvenidos publication. Each country has unique customs. Nicaraguans honor the virgin Mary with caroling and fireworks. Cuba has “Parrandas” with a street party-type atmosphere.
“Oh, how I miss the flavors and smells during Christmastime,” remembers Marta Fuentealba, who relocated 21 years ago from Rancagua, Chile. The turkey dinners are served along with “pan de pascua,” a fruitcake-like bread, and “cola de mono,” a holiday cocktail mixed with cloves and cinnamon. Old Man Christmas, “Viejito Pascuero,” makes an appearance, and families gather at the “Misa de Gallo” (Rooster’s Mass) or Midnight Mass. “Because it is summertime there,” Fuenteabla says, “people are dancing and partying outdoors, and it is a very public celebration.”
Puerto Rico has the longest Christmas season starting on November 19 with Discovery Day and going to the San Sebastian festival on January 20. In Brazil, the celebrations are in full swing from Christmas to Carnival in February. In many countries, gifts are brought by the three kings, who come on the night of January 5 and fill shoes that are left out. This is similar to the tradition of filling stockings.
“Sharing the bounty with others and being grateful is part of the culture,” says Aileen Sanchez, who hails from Santiago, Cuba. She reminisces that the music and hymns are very lively and the decorations are quite colorful. She also acknowledges that, “It is hard having a cultural identity with our country of origin, and now, with my daughter, I want to keep the traditions alive.”
These fun-loving religious fiestas are times of remembrance and a great way to bring communities together. Locally, Saint Francis Catholic Church has holiday celebrations and masses in Spanish. During Las Posadas, there is typically a gathering starting each evening around 7 p.m. ::
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Check out a recipe for “ponche” on our website.