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Elaine AyalaNovember 17, 2022
Juan Billarruem and Maria Bonilla play the part of Joseph and Mary seeking refuge on the night of Christ's birth during a posada at Holy Redeemer Parish in Detroit, Mich., on Dec. 19, 2001. (CNS photo by Audrey Sommers, Michigan Catholic) Juan Billarruem and Maria Bonilla play the part of Joseph and Mary seeking refuge on the night of Christ's birth during a posada at Holy Redeemer Parish in Detroit, Mich., on Dec. 19, 2001. (CNS photo by Audrey Sommers, Michigan Catholic) 

One of the best posadas I ever attended was in a San Antonio working-class neighborhood near a busy intersection peppered with popular taquerias. The people who lived in the cul-de-sac were longtime neighbors, and the Christmastime sing-along and re-enactment of the Holy Family’s quest for lodging, or posada, was an annual event.

It involved people inside several homes singing the parts of innkeepers, refusing them lodging. Mary and Joseph led a group of peregrinos, or pilgrims, asking for shelter through song. That year the teen playing Joseph called in sick, and an unsuspecting boy soon found himself in a shepherd-like robe standing next to Mary. She was played by the posada organizer’s aunt, and the 80-something-year-old couldn’t have been more excited about landing a role she’d long coveted.

When organized by parishes, posadas can be elaborate, staged programs with practiced choral groups. Outside the church, they are largely unrehearsed affairs but nonetheless joyous.

Across the Southwest, Mexican Americans may be the major group re-enacting posadas, especially in places where they make up the largest segment of the Latino population. But other Latino groups as well as non-Latinos throughout the United States have mounted and participated in them. When organized by parishes, posadas can be elaborate, staged programs with practiced choral groups. Outside the church, they are largely unrehearsed affairs but nonetheless joyous.

Usually re-enacted between Dec. 16 and Dec. 24, posadas have been kept alive by parents, grandparents, madrinas and padrinos, as well as cultural and civic organizations, and even an upscale shopping complex in San Antonio called the Historic Pearl. They can also incorporate current social justice issues. The Archdiocese of Chicago, for example, hosts a Posada for Immigration Reform.

Ivette Contreras, dressed as an angel, and Yazmin Diaz and Xavier Diaz, from St. Gall Parish, portray Mary and Joseph during a posada in Chicago on Dec. 19, 2014. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

In simple terms, a posada is a Nativity play but without wise men, shepherds or mangers.

It zeroes in on the Holy Family’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to fulfill a Roman-mandated census. In sing-along form, one innkeeper after another denies the weary couple a place to rest. Mary, Joseph and the pilgrims are the “outside singers,” and the innkeepers serve as “inside singers.”

The Spanish verses reflect the Holy Family’s hardships. For example, Joseph and the pilgrims sing, “En el nombre del cielo, os pido posada, pues no puede andar, mi esposa amada.” (“In the name of heaven, I ask of you shelter, for my beloved wife can go no farther.”)

Posada groups often receive printed copies of the villancicos, or carols, that they sing along the way. “Noche de Paz,” or “Silent Night” will be heard. They also most likely sing a version of “Pidiendo Posada,” or “Asking for Shelter.”

Because organizers are not likely to know who will show up, posadas are usually unrehearsed, prompting one of my friends, Alicia Reyes-Barriéntez, to describe her own family’s tradition as a “beautiful mess.”

“My grandma sang out of tune,” said Ms. Reyes-Barriéntez, an assistant professor of political science at Texas A&M University, San Antonio, who attended her grandmother’s posadas in South Texas. “It always seemed that half of the people knew the songs and half didn’t.” But posadas ultimately end with invitations for everyone to come inside, and “that’s all that matters.”

Everyone in a posada participates in a story that teaches empathy for the poor, the stranger and the migrant.

That is whenposada becomes a party, with foods of the Christmas season. For Mexican Americans that means tamales, fried dough treats called buñuelos and champurrado, a chocolate drink made with cornmeal. Children may also take turns swinging at a piñata, usually made in the shape of a star and filled with candy.

Through the re-enactment of the difficult journey Mary and Joseph undertook, everyone in a posada participates in a story that teaches empathy for the poor, the stranger and the migrant.

“When the peregrinos reached my grandma’s house, they found a place of rest after being rejected by many people,” Ms. Reyes-Barriéntez said. The lesson of the posada is that we don’t want to be like those innkeepers who turned Mary and Joseph away. We want to act as humanely as my friend Alicia’s grandmother did.

That is why the posada remains relevant.

“Are we doing what God has called us to do?” Ms. Reyes-Barriéntez said. If we open our hearts and wallets during the season of giving, what about the other 11 months of the year?

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