by Santos C. Vega
Hispanic Link News Service
Bundled up against the cold, they carry candles and sing traditional songs as they make their way in procession along winding barrio streets. They stop at designated homes. With one cupped hand, each protects a candle’s fragile flame from the cold night breeze. The illumination dances, reflecting their joyous faces.
Among them, they carry the figures of the Holy Family. Mary and Joseph again are in search of a shelter, re-enacting the Bible story set in Bethlehem.
The group is divided into pilgrims and innkeepers. Each night, for the nine days before Christmas, a different home is designated as the posada — inn. Through song, shelter is asked by the pilgrims several times and refused by the innkeepers. Finally, the pilgrims gain admittance and celebrate with songs, hot chocolate and sweet breads. The celebrants may gather around a nativity scene Nacimiento or Belén (Pesebre in Chile) and sing songs correlating with the Christmas story depicted by the nativity scene.
In the final day of Las Posadas, the group arrives at the church grounds or someone’s yard, where the children break a piñata.
At church, the faithful may also perform a drama called La Pastorela or Los Pastores — mystery plays of Spanish origin dating from the Middle Ages.
They are presented anytime between Christmas and Feb. 2, even as late as March 19. These are dramatic interpretations of the shepherds’ reactions to the angels’ announcement of the birth of Christ.
Prophets had foretold the coming of Christ some seven centuries before his birth; they had foretold the place of his birth, Bethlehem (Mica 5). These dramas may be staged before or after Christmas, but on Christmas Eve, the faithful attend Midnight Mass (Misa del Gallo). It is through these traditions that the Hispanic people honor Christ during the Christmas season.
Mexican Americans begin their Christmas Liturgical calendar with the period of Advent, four weeks of preparation for the coming of Christ. The Virgin Mary, mother of the Child Jesus, is the central figure as the faithful celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12 with a Mass and home rosary services. The Virgin Mary is honored as Empress of the Americas. The faithful recall her apparitions to the Mexican Saint Juan Diego on Tepeyac Hill near Mexico City.
Churches and homes are decorated with the Bélen (nativity scene). In this scene the story of Christmas is depicted. Through Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, the faithful are brought to the Nativity of Christ. In Bethlehem, the time came for Jesus to be born. The humble Joseph and a patient Mary sought shelter. Finally, Jesus was born, wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. A scheming Herod plotted the death of the infant Jesus. The Magi, Three wise men who came from the East seeking the child Jesus, (Matt. 2:1-12) followed the Christmas Star.
In the Nacimiento, the wise men are moved closer to the crib each day until the day of Epiphany on Jan. 6. Epiphany commemorates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi, who brought gifts to the child Jesus. For this reason, many Hispanics give gifts to loved ones on that day, el Día de los Reyes.
The journey of the three kings demonstrates the spiritual longing for God’s fulfillment of His promise to send to humanity a savior, a Messiah, named “Emmanuel” by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7:13).
Today, this period of waiting for the promised Christ and this time of preparation by the faithful for his coming, celebrated by Christmas, is called Advent (from the Latin “Advenire,” meaning “to come”). The coming of Christ is celebrated by Hispanics, like the Old Testament faithful, by waiting and living lives in tune with God’s expectations. After the fall of Adam and Eve, God promised to send a Savior to his people (Genesis 3:15). Thus, the Season of Advent is a “waiting time” of preparation for reliving the birth of Jesus Christ.
The story of waiting and searching, praying and celebrating is carried out by Las Posadas, El Nacimiento, Las Pastorelas, and La Misa del Gallo. The Hispanic Christmas culture brings the faithful together in celebration with family and friends.
In Puerto Rico, groups of faithful drop in unannounced on friends and relatives to sing aguinaldos. The surprise visit is called an Asalto. Aguinaldo means gift and in the case of asaltos, the gifts are Christmas songs. Appreciative hosts supply treats such as drinks of coquito (coconut milk and rum eggnog), arroz con dulce, sweetened rice and pastries. The asaltos continue for eight days after Jan. 6, Epiphany, Día de Reyes.
Epiphany is important to the Hispanic world. Cubans celebrate the Nochebuena (Holy Night of Christmas) Dec. 24. Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans and Latinos from Mexico and throughout the Americas attend Midnight Mass (Misa del Gallo). After Mass and during the days of celebration, Cuban Americans enjoy dinner with the traditional roast pork, guinea hen fricassee, black beans and rice. Desserts may include yuca, buñuelos, turrones (nougat candy of Spanish origin) and fruits and nuts.
Mexican Americans return home from Misa de Gallo to eat tamales. They are a particular favorite in Texas. Celebrants in New Mexico often prefer empanaditas (turnovers filled with sweet, spiced meat). For Mexican Americans, Christmas dinner may include chicken with mole (a thick spicy gravy-type sauce), pozole (hominy and beans) and more tamales.
Puerto Ricans’ Christmas dinner (Cena de Nochebuena) may consist of roast pork, rice with chick-peas (arroz con gandules), and for dessert, coconut custard (bien me sabe), fruits and nuts.
Dominicans gather on Christmas Eve for a dinner of roast pork, teleras (yolk bread), smoked ham, and after dinner, pastry called pastelitos dominicanos. Other desserts may include figs, dates, grapes, apples, and pears. Ponche crema (milk eggnog) is the traditional drink.
Early Augustinian Missionaries introduced Las Posadas to the Americas. At the end of the posadas, children celebrate by breaking piñatas. The piñata was used initially by missionaries as a teaching aid: Christian life is a struggle against unseen spiritual enemies. (Eph. 6:12) A person (a child breaking the piñata) triumphs with the rod of virtues. When children break the piñata, all kinds of candy fall out; these are the fruits of the efforts, fun and joy celebrating the birth of the Child Jesus.
The victory for all humanity was gained with the birth of Christ. The historical piñata was broken and salvation given to humanity by God as a gift. Many Hispanics celebrate the Reyes Magos on Jan. 6. This is the time for gift giving, especially in New Mexico.
In the Hispanic world, no two Christmas celebrations are alike. The meaning to each individual depends on his or her perception within the context of the celebrating community.
Christian culture gives each person an opportunity to participate in Las Posadas, a Pastorela, attend a Misa del Gallo and honor Christ in the Christmas Hispanic culture.
(Santos C. Vega, Ph.D., Emeritus College, retired in 2004, Hispanic Research Center, Arizona State University in 2004).