Photo courtesy of Fiesta Cristiana
Welcome, the message of Las Posadas
In Apex, NC, and across the country, churches are using the Latin American tradition of Las Posadas to connect people to Hispanic culture and the Christmas story -- and to spread the message of hospitality.
December 18, 2012 | Across the United States this Christmas season, churches will present cantatas and stage Nativity scenes. Congregations will sing “Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night” and other well-loved hymns and carols. They will light Advent candles, make special offerings and once again act out the familiar story from Matthew and Luke.
But in Apex, N.C., one congregation will be taking part in a ritual that is unfamiliar to many Protestants in this country. For the fifth year in a row, Fiesta Cristiana Faith Community, the Hispanic ministry of Apex United Methodist Church, will be sponsoring Las Posadas, a nine-night celebration that re-creates Mary and Joseph’s last-minute search for lodging before Jesus’ birth.
The church is one of a growing number of Protestant congregations nationwide -- especially in areas with a growing Hispanic population -- that will be hosting Las Posadas. A popular tradition in many Latin American countries, especially Mexico, Las Posadas is a festive ritual with powerful resonance in a changing America, one with an important lesson at its core.
“It’s a playful celebration that has a very serious message about hospitality,” said the Rev. José Luis Villaseñor, pastor of Fiesta Cristiana. “To open your homes to strangers -- that is the message of Las Posadas.”
When Villaseñor started Fiesta’s Las Posadas in 2008, he didn’t know what to expect. But it’s clear that his congregation must be doing something right. Each year, people -- both Anglo and Hispanic -- keep coming back, and other churches in the area are launching their own Las Posadas.
“I think it might be because we’ve been authentic to Las Posadas but adapted it to fit where we are now,” Villaseñor said. “We’re using the tradition in new ways to connect people, especially children, to the Hispanic culture and to the Christmas story.”
Connection is a big part of what Las Posadas has always been about for Camerina Calderón. As a child growing up in Veracruz, Mexico, she loved the Las Posadas celebrations, because they connected her with her community, her culture and her Catholic faith.
But after Calderón moved to the United States 15 years ago, eventually settling in Apex, the tradition ended for her when she could not find any churches that were doing it. Now, thanks to Fiesta Cristiana, Las Posadas is forging connections for her again, both to her roots in Mexico and to her new home.
Questions to consider:
- Who are the strangers in your community? What is your church or organization doing to welcome them?
- Las Posadas connects people and cultures. How well does your church's worship forge connections? What new worship practices would help?
- Las Posadas is a tradition that is flexible. How can your congregation's traditions be adapted to be more hospitable? How can leaders nurture flexiblity and creativity in others?
- We truly see the stranger only when we know their particular story and tradition. What can your church or organization do to become more inter-culturally competent?
“I like that Pastor Villaseñor started this tradition again,” Calderón said. “No other church was doing Posadas. It was nice to have a piece of my culture and country here.”
Understanding a 400-year-old tradition
Though Calderón had known and loved Las Posadas her entire life, Villaseñor definitely had not. When he was appointed as an associate pastor at Apex UMC in 2008, the El Salvador native and Duke Divinity graduate had never heard of the tradition.
Charged with starting a Hispanic ministry for the church (what would become Fiesta Cristiana), Villaseñor launched several programs such as computer and English as a second language classes. When he set out to add a worship experience, another pastor suggested he consider doing a Las Posadas.
Unfamiliar with the tradition, Villaseñor began researching it, turning to, among other sources, the United Methodist Book of Worship. There he found a short history of Las Posadas and liturgies for both Advent and Christmas Eve Las Posadas services.
Villaseñor learned that the 400-year-old tradition was started in Mexico by Augustinian Father Diego de Soria to introduce Christianity to the New World. Originally a Catholic practice, it has now expanded to other strands of Christianity. A traditional Las Posadas -- the word posada means “inn” or “lodging” -- is celebrated over the nine nights leading up to Christmas Day, Dec. 16 to Dec. 24.
On each night -- one for each month that Mary was pregnant with Jesus -- children and adults join in a procession as pilgrims, or “peregrinos,” as they simulate the journey that Mary and Joseph took in search of lodging. Playing the roles of Mary, Joseph, angels, wise men, shepherds and others, the pilgrims go from predesignated home to predesignated home, asking a series of “innkeepers” in song for a place to stay -- with all but the last innkeeper denying their requests.
At that final house, the pilgrims are welcomed and invited in, and a celebration is held, with a variety of foods and treats, punch, and a piñata.
“It is a big, big party,” said Delia Rangel, a member of Fiesta Cristiana who immigrated to North Carolina from Mexico about 18 years ago. “Growing up, everybody in the entire city came out for it.”
The tradition is common in areas of the United States where Hispanics, mainly those with ties to Mexico, have long resided, such as in the Southwest, Los Angeles and New York, said Aidé Acosta, a scholar who has studied Las Posadas. But it has also been gaining traction in the past few years in places like North Carolina, where the Hispanic population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010.
“It’s still very much a recent phenomenon in places like North Carolina, but it’ll become increasingly more common as more Hispanics establish roots there,” said Acosta, a visiting assistant professor in American and Latino studies at Indiana University. “Traditions like Las Posadas will play an important role in community formation.”