The Latin American Tradition of Las Posadas
The airy notes of a wooden flute and the ting-tong of a tortoise-shell drum float down the cobblestone street and into the rest of the town. A small crowd promenades through the narrow roads and alleyways, its members dressed warmly to keep out the December night chill. Some carry torches to light the way while others rest poles on their shoulders, supporting the weight of a wooden, altar-like platform with religious figurines adorning the top.
Children and adults alike march through the streets, stopping at pre-selected houses. The travelers sing back and forth with those who wait for them at each door. The traditional song they sing goes something like this:
En nombre del cielo pedimos posada,
Pues no puede andar mi esposa amada.
Aquí no es mesón. Sigan adelante.
Yo no debo abrir, no sea algún tunante.
No seas inhumano, tennos caridad.
El Dios de los cielos te lo premiará.
Ya se pueden ir y no molestar,
Porque si me enfado os voy a apalear.
Venimos rendidos desde Nazaret.
Yo soy carpintero de nombre José.
No me importa el nombre. Déjenme dormir.
Pues que yo les digo, que no hemos de abrir.
This exchange continues until the members are welcomed into the house to partake in a joyous celebration. Have you seen anything like this before? You may have witnessed it in certain areas in the United States as it has grown in popularity in the past couple of decades. However, this holiday tradition is usually celebrated throughout Mexico and Central America, and it is called Las Posadas.
The Meaning of Las Posadas
Do you recognize any words in the traditional lyrics above? If you are familiar with the Christmas story of the birth of Jesus, you may recognize these words:
Nazaret – Nazareth
Carpintero – carpenter
José – Joseph
Dios – God
La historia navideña
As the story goes, Joseph (a carpenter) and his pregnant wife Mary left their town of Nazareth to be registered in the Bethlehem census. When they got to Bethlehem, they could not find a place to stay. All the inns were full, and they were turned away every time–until, finally, they received refuge in a stable. Las posadas represent this journey.
La Posada Meaning
la posada is a noun that comes from the verb posar, which means to lay down or rest. Likewise, dar posada means to let someone stay with you for free, and pedir posada is to ask for a place to stay (rent free). The noun form, la posada, literally means “the inn,” but when it refers to this Christmas tradition, it entails the reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to rest.
Celebration of Las Posadas
Las posadas are mainly celebrated through Mexico, Central America, and Cuba, whose origins date back as far as the 900s AD. While they originally served as a creative way to teach the Christmas story to those who were unable to read the Bible, las posadas are now another beloved Christmas tradition. For some, they have a deeply religious meaning, while for others, it’s a treasured holiday tradition just like putting up a tree.
The origin of las posadas is based in Christianity; but, not all Christians in the countries listed above participate in this tradition. Catholics typically celebrate these types of traditions and processions. The Catholic Church in Latin America is recognized for creating larger-than-life, colorful, and intricately-detailed processional traditions throughout the year. While they are much more extravagant and popular during Holy Week, smaller processions during the year celebrate and honor important events and people in the Catholic faith. For example, there are processions for every Sunday of Lent, for various saints and their designated days of worship, for the Virgin Mary, and for caring for the disabled.
9 Day Posada
Las posadas occur on a smaller scale (compared to Semana Santa), but you can usually find them in every town. Every night for nine consecutive days before Christmas, a group of people from the Catholic church goes into the town and travels to a predetermined home. While many holiday traditions occur throughout the month of December, this particular one only happens for nine days to represent the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy before the birth of Christ.
Process of Celebrating
Depending on the region, people may have two individuals dress up as Mary and Joseph, or they may carry their figurines on a platform. Once they reach the designated houses, the group sings back and forth with the inhabitants, or “innkeepers,” as you saw in the introduction. (Want to see a full version of the song?) Mary and Joseph beg for a place to stay as each innkeeper denies them—until they realize that it’s the Virgin Mary. Meanwhile, the innkeepers who reject them join them in the journey to the final house.
Pride and Privilege
For those involved, it is a special privilege to accept Mary and Joseph into their house during one of the nine nights, as it represents hospitality and generosity. While it is indeed a blessing for the accomodating family, it requires a lot of preparation and money. A beautiful nativity scene is an expensive endeavour, while its presence is a prerequisite for every home that plans to welcome Mary, Joseph, and the unborn Jesus to stay the night. Additionally, the travelers look forward to refreshments awaiting them at the last home.
Once at the house, everyone sings carols, or villancicos, and shares in food and drink. Depending on the economic status of the family, they may offer a humble snack of hot chocolate or go all out and make traditional tamales and ponche. In some areas, like Mexico, they also celebrate in the home by breaking a piñata.
See It for Yourself!
If you would like to see las posadas in real life, reach out to your local Latino community. If you are able, you can also travel to Mexico or Central America during the holidays to see this unique tradition for yourself. To learn more about las posadas and understand the meaning of the villancico, talk to one of our Spanish teachers! They are all native speakers from Guatemala, where the tradition of las posadas is thriving. If you would like to visit and see las posadas, check out other places to visit while you are in Central America or Guatemala. Don’t forget to sign up for your FREE trial class before you go. You can learn more about the culture and language with one of our fantastic teachers! ¡Felices fiestas!
Want to learn more about Spanish and Latin American culture and history? Check these out:
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- Latin American Food: 15 Must-Try National Dishes of Latin America - January 2, 2021
- The Ultimate Guide to Subjunctive Conjugation in Spanish - December 27, 2020