December 13, 2011

The Night of Las Posadas

By Rebecca Ryskind Teti *

I slammed the door on Joseph and Mary the other night. That was after I threatened to slap them.

It wasn’t a renunciation of faith, but an expression of it, however. I was participating in my first Las Posadas celebration, and playing the part of an innkeeper.

Do you know this lovely custom?

It originated in Spain, though now is practiced primarily in Mexico and Central America.

Neighborhoods or church communities mark the novena leading up to Christmas with a nightly candle-lit procession, during which statues of the Holy Family are carried from home to home and the crowd seeks shelter (“posada”) on their behalf in song. 

Time after time an increasingly desperate Joseph knocks and is denied, until at last, at a designated place, the doors are open wide and prayers in front of the nativity scene, the singing of carols, and a big party follow.

The accompanying song is a tuneful little folk melody with humorous lyrics readily lending themselves to melodrama and over-acting, all in good fun.

In some places, people act out the parts rather than carrying statues, and the roles have expanded beyond Mary & Joseph and the inn-keepers to include a couple of demons who dash about making sure that the Holy Couple are not only given no aid, but insulted and scorned for their poverty to boot.

It was a somewhat bowdlerized version in which my family took part. Volunteers at the retreat center where I work wanted to do something special to honor Mary during the octave of the Immaculate Conception, so we gathered our families to pray the rosary, and a few creative souls designed our one-night-only pilgrimage through various “inns” in the same building, culminating in a pot-luck dinner in the main room.

I couldn’t help noticing we all got swept up in it nonetheless. My little boys (8 and 11) were enchanted, and my older kids –who’d been complaining about being dragged along to yet another “cultural experience” – thoroughly enjoyed it, and other families seemed to be similarly affected.

Jolly rather than solemn, there was nonetheless something magical about the experience. Perhaps it was the candlelight. Maybe it’s because where Joseph and Mary are honored, they attend.  

That’s the way it happens in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in Tomie de Paola’s delightful, “The Night of Las Posadas.”

dePaola seems to love Christmas. You may know his “Legend of the Poinsettia” or “Legend of Old Befana.”  Even his unforgettable classic, “The Clown of God,” reaches its climax on Christmas Eve.

Like other Christmas tales de Paola has brought to life with his gentle prose and signature acrylic illustrations, “The Night of Las Posadas” offers a window into a culture –in this instance that of the American Southwest—while adding a note of reverence and mystery.

It’s a cold night in the mountains above Santa Fe when a little village intends to put on the Las Posadas procession it’s been practicing for weeks. The costumes are ready, the town square is prepared.

But then everything starts to go wrong.

It snows.

Sr. Angie, the dedicated nun who’s arranged the festival for years, is sick and will have to miss for the first time.

Lupe and Roberto, this year’s Mary and Joseph, have car trouble and never make it into town.

No one can say who the strangers are who arrive to save the day: a man with his heavily pregnant wife and their burro. They introduce themselves only as “friends of Sr. Angie’s” and don’t wait around to be thanked.

If you haven’t guessed the end, you’ll have to read it, but the zenith of the story comes when Sr. Angie, alone in the chapel at night, prays, “Oh, Maria. Oh, Jose. My heart will always be open to you so that the Holy Child will have a place to be born.”

That’s the lesson – of the tradition and of the story. Mary and Joseph are good company, and make their presence felt wherever they are invited. May they be with us in these final weeks of Advent.

Rebecca Ryskind Teti is Operations Coordinator for the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at the Busch School of Business & Economics at CUA, though the opinions are her own. This column is modified from an earlier version that first appeared in Faith & Family  magazine.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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