For many American Catholics (like most Americans), the days leading up to Dec. 25 are a frenzied rush of shopping to prepare for what has become a holiday dedicated to buying things, getting things, and returning things the next day for better things on sale. And for many young children, Christmas Eve mass is just an hour-long obstacle to Santa’s arrival. So how can Catholics (or really any Christian) bring back Christmas’ religious elements in a way that doesn’t detract from the holiday’s festivities or put the children to sleep? Well, instead of screaming at your Starbucks barista for saying “happy holidays,” I suggest you take a page from Mexico, a country with a rich tradition of Catholicism and even richer tradition of celebrating the Christmas season.
Many Mexicans spend up to nine days before Christmas celebrating Las Posadas, which translates to “the inns” or “shelter.” In the festival’s most traditional form, children dress each evening in biblical attire and form a procession led by an angel, Mary, and Joseph, and followed by the adults and musicians. The procession stops at a pre-selected home—an “inn”—and requests lodging. The hosts of the inn refuse the procession, just as Mary and Joseph were refused; but the residents ultimately provide the group with refreshments, and at each stop the procession reads from scripture and sings songs. Mass is offered each night for the duration, after which the children will often burst open a star-shaped piñata—symbolizing the star in the Bible that led the three wise men to the Christ child—filled with candy, toys, or money.
Las Posadas began in Mexico during the 16th century, when Augustinian missionaries introduced the tradition to the Aztecs as a Christian alternative for the Aztecs’ own custom of honoring the god Huitzilopochtli around the winter solstice. The celebration goes on for nine nights in honor of Mary’s nine months of pregnancy. Today, the tradition has grown to include other Hispanic countries and Hispanic Protestants. And many Latinos, especially those who live in large cities or in other countries, participate in a lower-key Posada, with just close family and friends during a single afternoon or evening.
Here’s how Las Posadas might work for you: Divide your party guests randomly into two groups. The first group begins the party inside, and the second group begins the party outside. After some initial mingling, each party-goer is given a song sheet with the lyrics to the traditional Posada song and a single candle. The two groups sing the song together in unison, back and forth, as the outside group requests shelter and the inside group refuses them. In the final verse, the inside group finally invites the outside group inside for a large feast and celebration. Let hot chocolate drinking, empanada eating, and piñata smashing ensue.
The party should ideally include adults and children—bonus points for dressing your kids up like the angel Gabriel, Mary, and Joseph—and it combines some of the best parts of the Christmas season: music, candlelight, cute kids dressed in costumes, and food with close friends. And after attending a Posada two years ago, I can personally attest that a crowd of loved ones huddled and singing together amid candlelight is an infinitely more beautiful display than the fluorescent rainbow Christmas lights hanging on your bushes—even if you (like me) do not quite understand all the words.