As the days of Advent dwindle, God whispers the same question in each of our hearts: “Is there any room here for me?”
That perpetual question, and the grace to answer it affirmatively, is commemorated this week in the Hispanic tradition of Las Posadas. Taking place in parishes, in individual homes and in wider communities the world over, Las Posadas (Spanish for “the inns”) is a work of preparation for the coming of the Christ Child — an exercise in making oneself ready, “a renewal experience,” in the words of Consuelo Reyes, who grew up with the custom in her native Mexico.
“It is a tradition in which I recharge not only my faith in God, but also in the goodness of people, my hope and joy in life,” said Reyes. “It is a renewal experience, just looking at Joseph and Mary and Baby Jesus.”
Each year between Dec. 16 and 24, Las Posadas is celebrated in a variety of different ways throughout Hispanic communities within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Some parishes have the traditional rosary and celebration held every evening at the parish church itself; others mark just a few of the nights in a simpler fashion or in parishioners’ homes.
But the crucial elements remain the same — community, prayer and the recreation of the Holy Family’s search for shelter in anticipation of Christ’s birth.
This usually takes place in the form of a song, explained Fr. Esteban Redolad, the associate pastor at St. John Paul II Parish in Milwaukee.
“Part of the song is played by people outside the home, hall or room — they sing, ‘Here we are, we are looking for a posada’ — and then the people inside will answer, also singing, ‘this is full, we don’t have any room.’ It goes back and forth three or four times until the people inside realize it’s Mary, Joseph and Jesus, and they open the door, and both groups join,” he said.
Often, they will then pray the rosary and partake in a potluck celebration, complete with traditional pinatas.
Las Posadas is an opportunity, said Fr. Javier Bustos, to spiritually “accompany” the Virgin Mary in the final days of her pregnancy.
“The unique thing about Las Posadas is that it can be celebrated in church but it can also be celebrated outside,” said Fr. Bustos. “In Mexico, they are celebrated in ranchos, in the streets, in the houses — they go from one house to the other. It’s not only a church event but also a community event.”
That’s how Reyes grew up celebrating the tradition in Mexico with family and friends. When it was her family’s night to host, she enjoyed helping her mother with the work of preparing for friends and neighbors to visit, cooking tamales, filling the pinata and setting up chairs around the Nativity. Visitors bearing the Holy Family “peregrinos” (pilgrim) figurines would approach the house and be given colored candles to light while singing the traditional song. When the singing was over and the visitors were welcomed inside with their candles, said Reyes, “it was like bringing the light of Jesus into our home, into our life.”
The group would then pray the Joyful mysteries of the rosary and celebrate with the pinata and food, staying up late into the night.
“Kids of all ages did it; even toddlers made it through,” she said.
“In the Mexican tradition, children look forward to this beautiful time,” said Fr. Bustos. “As they grow up, Christmas is not just one day, it’s a season that begins on the 16th.”
“It’s like a family feast. The Posada helps people to be more communal,” said Fr. Redolad. “In our particular case here, it’s a very Mexican tradition, so it’s a way of remembering their own traditions. Many people have not visited their families for years, ever since they arrived, and having their traditions here is a way of taking them home.”
“By Christmas, you have seen these people every day for nine days,” said Fr. Bustos. “You realize this is your family. You have sung with them, you have prayed with them, you have eaten with them, you have fun with them. At the end, when Christmas Eve comes, you have journeyed not only with Mary, not only with Jesus and Joseph, but also with each other.”
Since moving to Milwaukee 16 years ago, Reyes has found Las Posadas celebrations all over, first on the city’s south side and most recently with a community of Hispanic Catholics in the North Shore. But this year, “instead of going after posadas, I want to introduce this beautiful tradition and share the richness of it in my community, with my neighbors,” she said. To that end, her family will be hosting a Las Posadas event for her son’s third-grade classmates at St. Eugene School in Fox Point. She hopes to make it an even larger event next year.
After all, said Reyes: more than ever before, the world needs to make room for God.
“Posadas is not only a beautiful tradition, but also a very intentional activity (to) set your heart during Advent, recognizing the greatness of God, his love and his humanity.”