Growing up in the Mexican state of Guanajuato in the central highlands of Mexico, Deacon Guillermo Torres fondly recalls Las Posadas, the Mexican-Advent Christmas tradition whose roots run deep in Latino culture.
“Who of us doesn’t remember as kids hearing the song—,” says Torres, stopping himself to break into singing, in Spanish, the first verse of “Pidiendo Posada” (Begging for Shelter):
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.)
Torres, who for 13 years has served as director of the Office for Hispanic Ministry for the Diocese of Orange, says the nine-day tradition (Dec. 16 through Dec. 24) that chronicles Mary and Joseph’s difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem is a perfect example of faith in action.
In this case, literally.
In Spanish-speaking neighborhoods through Orange County and around the world, families start at dusk to trek from door to door starting Dec. 16 in a pre-arranged re-enactment of what Mary and Joseph went through. They are rejected until, finally, they are given shelter (“posadas,” in Spanish, means shelter or accommodations).
Along the way, ideally accompanied by an acoustic guitarist (although smart phones do the trick, too), they sing traditional Las Posadas songs and Advent hymns. They recite prayers and sometimes say the rosary.
When they finally are given shelter in a home, tamales, sweets, gifts for children, and more singing, prayer, and fellowship ensues. There are piñatas for the kids and hot ponche, the traditional Mexican Christmas punch.
Although Joseph and Mary’s journey stretched some 70 miles, participants in Las Posadas typically hit only a handful of nearby homes as they re-enact what the Holy Family had to endure leading up to the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25.
The point of Las Posados, which commemorates the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy, is for families—often with children dressed as angels and other religious figures— to celebrate their faith as a community. The last night—Christmas Eve—usually ends with midnight Mass.
“There are several ways that we transmit our faith,” says Torres, a deacon at St. Columban Catholic Church in Garden Grove.
“Our faith is something that we possess; it has been handed to us by someone,” he explains. “It resides in us. But it has no effect if we don’t share it with others. So a lot of these traditions have the purpose of transmitting our faith, and a lot of Latin American cultures do it through different methods. This is a method that has been very effective; another is ‘Día de los Muertos’ (The Day of the Dead).
“It becomes a communal experience, and it doesn’t require you to be in a church setting. And your children understand the journey of Mary and Joseph (as narrated in the Gospel of Luke, 2) as we prepare for Advent.”
Las Posadas is a big deal within the Diocese of Orange.
Spanish-speakers make up about 40 percent of O.C.’s 1 million-plus Catholics. About 20 percent of these Catholics are second- or third-generation Latinos who speak both Spanish and English, Torres says.
Immaculate Heart of Mary in Santa Ana has the largest Hispanic congregation in Orange County, notes Torres, a married father of three who nowadays can only make it to two or three Las Posadas celebrations since his ministry keeps him so busy.
Torres’ ministry involves responding to the specific needs of people of Hispanic descent.
“We offer several cultural religious events throughout the year for the Hispanic people to make them feel welcome so they can continue on with their traditions in our diocese,” Torres says. “We want them to feel welcome and at home, and to not feel like they have to lose their traditions in order to be a part of our church.”
Torres says there’s another reason Las Posadas continues to strongly resonate today.
“It’s also a reminder to a lot of families who are first-generation Latinos who came here as immigrants, it reminds them not just of their Christmas traditions, but also that they too, as Mary and Joseph were, are immigrants, and they came here to be counted and that they really matter to society.”
The history of Las Posadas dates back to Spain, and it has been a tradition in Mexico for more than 400 years. Some families today combine the celebration with Misa de Aguinaldo, or “gift Masses” in which children are the focus.
“Las Posadas is very child-centric,” Torres says.
And rightly so, since it leads up to the birth of Jesus.
One of the last stanzas of “Pidiendo Posada” captures the gratitude that is at the heart of the Advent and Christmas season:
Dios pague, señores,
y que os colme el cielo
(May God repay, kind people,
and thus heaven heap
happiness upon you.)