In Mexico (and other countries in Latin America), the Christmas celebrations begin on December 16th with the first of nine parties we call posadas. Yes, I know what you might be thinking, “those Mexicans always find any excuse to celebrate,” and although many people do take advantage of these celebrations to party (I won’t deny it), the truth is that this is a very ancient tradition that dates back to the ancient Aztecs and was established during colonial times with the arrival of Catholicism to the country.
So, what exactly are posadas? Posadas (“inns” in Spanish) are the commemoration of Mary and Joseph’s nine-day pilgrimage to Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus. Traditionally, families throw posadas during these nine days prior to Christmas, and there’s a little reenactment involved, but I’m getting ahead of myself. So, let’s go right to the elements you’ll need to throw the best and most traditional Mexican posada.
For Catholic countries in Latin America and also Spain, the nativity scene is an essential element of the Christmas decorations (besides the Christmas tree). They go all the way from really simple sets to the most elaborate and artistic ones. The main elements of a nativity scene are: Mary, Joseph, an empty crib (until Christmas Day, when there’s a ritual to add the baby to the scene), the angel, the Three Wise Men walking towards the manger, the star of Bethlehem, a donkey, an ox, and a few shepherds.
Punch (ponche in Spanish) is a traditional infused beverage prepared with different fruits. It has dried prunes, apples, hibiscus petals (or as we know it in Mexico, flor de jamaica), sugar cane, orange, Mexican hawthorn (tejocote), and a hint of cinnamon, sweetened with pure brown sugar (piloncillo). This beverage is great for posadas because it keeps your guests warm. You can also ask for ponche con piquete, which is punch with a bit of rum, tequila, or brandy.
The formal bit of the posada starts when everyone gathers together to pray. Then, someone is chosen to take the group on a symbolic pilgrimage. The pilgrims are essentially Mary and Joseph, and the donkey. Traditionally, these aren’t the same you put in the nativity scene because these show a pregnant Mary riding the donkey. However, it’s fine if you use the ones in the nativity scene.
Book of litanies
This pilgrimage is accompanied by some sung litanies that explain the journey Mary and Joseph had to go through right before Jesus’ birth. If you’re a religious person, this part is super important since it contains the whole core of the celebration. These books (that look more like pulps) are quite common, and you can also get them online.
Candles and sparklers
As per tradition, the pilgrims carry colored candles and sparklers that symbolize the light that leads the way to the manger. Then, after the litanies and the pilgrimage are over, everyone goes back to the house, where the reenactment continues. Some of the attendees (the “innkeepers”) remain inside the house, while others wait outside, acting as the pilgrims. This is one of the most emblematic moments of the posada, and everybody sings a traditional song, with each verse belonging to one of the groups. The song is about the pilgrims asking for a place to rest and the innkeeper refusing since he’s convinced that the Messiah is going to be born.
Right after the song, the people inside open the door to let the pilgrims in. Then, there’s another song, inviting everyone to break the piñata. The origin of piñatas is traced back to this particular tradition of the posadas. Over time, piñatas became a part of every single celebration, but the original one dates to this event and has a lot of symbolism. Originally made of clay, these piñatas are star-shaped and have seven spikes made of cardboard and colorful paper. They represent the seven deadly sins, so our duty as sinners is to destroy them (the blindfold represents blind faith). Piñatas are generally filled with fruit, which represents God’s blessings after sin has been destroyed.
These days, the aguinaldo is the Christmas bonus we get from work, but its origins go back to posadas. The original aguinaldo consists of a small basket filled with candy of the season. These are given to the guests as a sign of good faith.
Last but not least, there’s no Mexican party without our delicious traditional food. The most common dish for posadas are tamales, but you can treat your guests to whatever you prefer, even tacos or quesadillas.
Even if you don’t follow tradition and throw a posada every day for nine days, embracing this tradition is really fulfilling and gives you a real glimpse at one of the many beautiful festivities Mexicans enjoy. So, make some ponche, get a colorful piñata, and celebrate Christmas like a real Mexican.
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