Las Posadas is a 9-day festival celebrated in Mexico and parts of Guatemala, Cuba, Spain, and other Latin American countries. It commemorates the journey that Mary and Joseph took from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of lodging before the birth of Jesus Christ. The celebration takes place from December 16 to December 24 each year, with the height of festivities occurring on December 24, Christmas Eve.
Las Posadas translates to “the inns” or “the lodgings” in Spanish. It reenacts the difficulty Mary and Joseph encountered in finding a place to stay the night before Jesus was born. The tradition began in Mexico centuries ago as a way for Catholics to prepare for Christmas.
The 3 Main Traditions of Las Posadas
There are three core traditions that make up the celebration of Las Posadas:
1. The Posada Procession
The posada procession is the main event of Las Posadas. It is held on each of the 9 nights leading up to Christmas Eve. The procession reenacts Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and their search for shelter.
In the posada procession, two people dress up as Mary and Joseph. Sometimes children take on these roles instead. The rest of the participants take on the role of followers walking with Mary and Joseph. The procession visits various friend’s homes, where the participants request lodging by singing the posada song. They are turned away at each home until finally being granted lodging at the last stop, which represents the inn in Bethlehem.
The posada song has many variations, but a common version translates to:
My beloved wife needs shelter.
Only for one night
If you don’t have space
Tell me at least
Pilgrims, we are not thieves or robbers
Just travelers on our way
I’m tired and here we’ll stay
At each home along the procession, the family and guests will sing the response:
This is not an inn, continue on your way
I cannot open, for you to stay
Until finally at the last stop, they sing:
Enter holy pilgrims, I have space
In the name of heaven, I will give you lodging.
The pilgrims are then welcomed into the home with a celebration. This reenacts Mary and Joseph being granted lodging for the birth of Jesus after being turned away so many times.
2. The Piñata
The breaking of the piñata is a fun tradition that occurs at the final posada procession on Christmas Eve. After being welcomed into the home, the posada celebrants gather to break open the piñata which is filled with fruits and candies.
The piñata itself is made in the shape of a traditional Mexican seven-pointed star. This star shape is meant to represent the seven deadly sins. As the piñata is broken, the fruits and treats inside fall out. This represents the rewards of overcoming sin and temptation.
Children are blindfolded and given a stick to try and break open the piñata and release the treats hidden inside. It’s a fun game that gets everyone eager to participate in the posada festivities.
3. Las Posadas Feasts
Food and feasting play a central role in the Las Posadas tradition. At each home along the posada procession, the pilgrims are offered tamales, hot chocolate, buñuelos pastries, and ponche – a warm, spiced fruit punch.
On Christmas Eve, after the piñata, a large feast is held to culminate the posada festivities. The feast varies by region and family tradition. Some common Las Posadas foods include:
- Tamales – filled corn dough wrapped and steamed in corn husks or banana leaves
- Menudo – a tripe-based soup
- Romeritos – a green stew made with shrimp, spices and a wild plant called romerito
- Bacalao – a codfish dish
- Pozole – a soup made with hominy, pork and chile peppers
- Buñuelos – fried fritters dusted with cinnamon sugar
- Ponche – a warm spiced fruit punch
The meal brings families and friends together to enjoy food, music, and community after nine nights of posada celebrations. It’s the final tradition that marks the official start of the Christmas season.
Origins of Las Posadas Traditions
The roots of Las Posadas lie in Spain, where similar processions were held in the 16th century. Spanish friars introduced these traditions to Mexico and Latin America to teach about Christianity and evangelize among indigenous populations.
The posada processions combined Passion Plays from medieval Europe with Aztec winter solstice rituals. Aztec celebrations at this time of year involved god impersonators visiting homes asking for offerings. The friars incorporated this concept for their nativity play.
The practice of breaking piñatas also has origins in Aztec traditions. The seven-pointed star shape represents the seven deadly sins, while the treats inside represent reward in the afterlife. The blindfolded child breaking the piñata is meant to represent faith.
Over time, Las Posadas has evolved into both a religious celebration and a community cultural tradition celebrated throughout Mexico and Latin America.
While the core traditions remain the same, Las Posadas festivities vary across different regions of Mexico and Latin America:
- In Northern Mexico, brass bands accompany the pilgrims going door to door during the posadas.
- In Oaxaca, homes are decorated with evergreen branches and flowers for the posadas.
- In San Cristobal de las Casas, children carry painted clay figures of angels in the procession.
- Guatemalan posadas feature fireworks, sparklers, fruits, and flowers at each stop along the procession.
- Some posadas have masked dance troupes putting on a show at each home.
- In Cuba, posadas consist of large neighborhood parties moving from home to home.
- Guitars, maracas, and claves accompany the pilgrims along the way.
- Spanish posadas tend to be solemn, with participants carrying candles in silence to each stop.
- Children still sing to request lodging but in a more subdued manner.
So while the rituals share a common origin, local culture and customs shape the unique experience of Las Posadas across different regions.
Las Posadas in the Modern Era
Today, Las Posadas remains a popular Christmas tradition in Mexico, Guatemala, parts of the US Southwest, and anywhere with a large Latin American population. However, some elements and meanings have changed over time:
- Secular celebrations are now more common than church-organized events.
- Piñatas can take all shapes and forms, not just the traditional star.
- Posada processions may only go to a few stops or even just one final party.
- Parties have become more important than the pilgrimage reenactment for some.
But many families try to maintain the traditional religious and community values in their own posada celebrations. Teaching children about the nativity story and symbolism remains an important goal for many.
Las Posadas is a long-held Christmas tradition in Mexico, Guatemala, and parts of Latin America. While customs vary across regions today, the core traditions hold religious significance and community meaning. The posada processions, piñatas, and feasts allow families to celebrate their faith, cuisine, and culture in the days leading up to Christmas.