Though this dwelling is poor…

Growing up in South Texas, my childhood was peppered with the colorful traditions of my Mexican heritage. Listening to mariachis at every restaurant, funeral, and midnight mass, learning folklorico dancing in my Catholic elementary, being constantly patted by old women to ward off el ojo, the evil eye. The vibrant mixture of religion and Mexican folk culture is something I’ve missed since leaving the Rio Grande Valley six years ago.

There have been quite a few discussions on the Bloggernacle lately about holiday traditions. Reading about your traditions inspired me to look up my own personal favorite and see if it existed anywhere nearby. So I googled “candlelight posada” and the entire first page of entries that popped up referred me to McAllen, my hometown. Years ago, as a sullen high school student waiting to leave my podunk town, I would have never dreamed that McAllen had the corner on the market of such a beautiful Christmas experience.

Las Posadas originated in Mexican village culture hundreds of years ago and continues on in those villages, as well as in urban neighborhoods and citywide events. The idea is beautifully simple. For nine nights, beginning on December 16, neighbors gather together and assume the role of Los Peregrinos, pilgrims who will follow a tiny Joseph and Mary, played proudly by children selected from the village. Joseph leads Mary, seated on a burro, from inn (posada) to inn, searching for a place to stay the night, as the pilgrims follow with lit candles and song.

Each night, the candlelit procession approaches three homes. They knock on the door and sing the traditional song:
En el nombre del cielo,
yo os pido posada,
pues no puede andar,
mi esposa amada.

(In the name of heaven, I beg you for lodging. My beloved wife cannot walk.)

The innkeeper answers:
Aqua­ no es mesón,
sigan adelante,
no les puedo abrir,
no vaya a ser un tunante.

(This is not an inn so keep going. I cannot let you in, you may be a rogue.)

Turned away, the pilgrims move to the next house, where this song is repeated and again, the door is closed on them. The humble procession trudges on down the road, their faces illuminated by flickering candlelight. Perhaps getting caught up in their roles or maybe experiencing deep empathy, at this point the crowd seems more silent and reflective and their steps become slower. At the third house, Joseph pleads with the innkeeper, telling him that this woman will be the Queen of Heaven, for he is Jose, she is Maria, and the child to be born will be the Divine Word. The innkeeper welcomes them in, and he and the pilgrims burst into a song of rejoicing:

Entren Santos Peregrinos,
Reciban este rincón,
que aunque es pobre la morada,
os las doy de corazón.

(Enter, Holy Pilgrims, and receive this corner. Though this dwelling is poor, I offer it with all my heart.)

The song continues, proclaiming the honor the innkeeper feels in welcoming this Holy Family. The pilgrims enter the home and kneel to pray with their hosts. After prayer, carols are sung and the party begins. The family who has been honored with the role of third innkeeper (usually a wealthier family) has prepared the home with decorations, music and a grand feast of dulces, tamales, and punch. The children flock to the piñata and scramble for the prizes as their parents sip chocolate and share village gossip.

This repeats itself each night until Christmas Eve, when at the end of the posada, the neighbors gather in one final candlelit procession that ends at the church where Midnight Mass will be celebrated.

Memories of this tradition warm my heart more than listening to Christmas carols on CD or putting lights up on my house. The idea of a community, of neighbors, gathering together to remember the night of Christ’s birth, to feel rejection and celebration, to have their richest honored to serve their poorest and the poorest able to bless a home with song and prayer, to rejoice wildly and then to worship reverently, what a beautiful journey that is.

Comments

  1. Simply beautiful. Thanks Melissa.

  2. I’ve always wished that Mormons could get behind the idea of a Christmas Midnight Mass. Although there’s always the danger that our equivalent would be a satellite broadcast of a sermon.

    The “candlelight posada” tradition sounds like it would really heighten the subsequent Mass. Thanks for the wonderful post, Melissa.

  3. I just asked my husband about this and he got all excited. He served his mission in So. Cal spanish speaking and said that this is what they did for christmas, though where he was they would often just do it with their family or small neighborhood, or ward members often did it together also. Ever since his mission all he talks about at Christmas is how much ‘better’ the Mexicans celebrate it :) Now I understand what he means.

  4. What a an amazingly beautiful tradition…

  5. Isn’t there supposed to be a devil (also played by a child) who follows and torment Jose and Maria during their journey, and which the crowd ultimately drives away? I thought that was part of the tradition as well.

    Beautiful rendition, Melissa. I’ve heard and seen pictures of candlelight posadas many times, but never in person. I hope the tradition survives until someday when I can experience for myself.

  6. cantinflas says:

    Interesting. I served my mission in McAllen beginning in 1999, and never witnessed this, though I have heard of it. I served in an area south and west of the airport.

    Funny that you mentioned “el ojo” because I was just reminded of it for some reason and told my wife about it, and how strange a superstition it was to me.

  7. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    I’d be all for a Mormon Midnight Mass, but I just can’t imagine the same sense of awe and wonder from gathering in the chapel as one gets in a Catholic church, decked out with gold, stained glass, candlelight, and splendor. MM seems magical, probably due also in part to the lateness of the hour and the intoxicating cloud of incense. I’d recommend the experience to everyone.

    I’m in agreement with V’s husband, Mexicans certainly know how to do holidays. While I know this is a delicate topic, I for one am grateful that Mexican immigrants tend to retain their cultural traditions and identity rather than assimilate. I hope that we can pick up and learn from the joy they find in life.

    Russell- I’ve never heard of the devil part, but I’m sure there are many versions of the posada in Mexican culture. I’d hate to be the poor kid cast as the devil, although I’m sure boys that age would get a kick out of it.

  8. What a great Christmas tradition! Thank you for telling us about it. That brought tears to my eyes. =)

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Simply delectable, Melissa. Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful tradition.

  10. Mary Ellen says:

    I’m a new resident of McAllen. I regret missing the first night of the candlelight posada; it was raining and cold the other nights and the stake choir outnumbered the few people who came to hear them sing.

    My ward in Los Angeles did a posada one year as part of the ward Christmas party and it was lovely. Hope you can transplant the posada tradition to your new locale!

  11. we live in los angeles in a highly concentrated hispanic area, but no one around these here parts seems to follow tradition, sadly.

    christmas eve mass isn’t always stained glass and splendor. raised catholic, i still attend mass with my family and their parish holds it in their “st. joseph center,” which is a poor substitute for a cultural hall. not at all splendid, indeed! in 2004, we attended mass in honolulu and that was quite the experience, with the hawaiian chanting.

  12. When I think of Christmas in South Texas, I think of homemade tomales. They warm my heart too.

    Great post.

  13. Awesome.

  14. jothegrill says:

    This is beautiful. I wish we did this everywhere. We need more excuses to party, to come together as a community, and to remember Christ.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    For Salt Lake City posadas, see this article in the SL Tribune.

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