A posada is a traditional Mexican Catholic celebration that reenacts Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging in Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus Christ. Posadas take place on each of the nine nights leading up to Christmas, from December 16th through 24th. They are lively, community events full of song, prayer, processions, and festive gatherings.
What is the history and meaning behind posadas?
The posada tradition originated in Spain as a way for Catholics to prepare spiritually for Christmas. It was brought to Mexico in the 16th century by Spanish missionaries and friars who were teaching and converting indigenous populations to Christianity. The word “posada” comes from the Spanish term for “inn” or “lodging.”
In Mexico, posadas have become a beloved folk custom that brings families and communities together to celebrate and reflect on the Nativity story. They remind participants of the difficulties faced by Joseph and the pregnant Mary as they arrived in Bethlehem with no place to stay before Jesus’ birth. Posadas allow people to symbolically reenact this Bible story and imagine what it must have been like for the Holy Family.
When do posadas take place?
The posada festivities happen on each of the nine nights leading up to Christmas Eve, which is called Nochebuena in Spanish. This is meant to represent the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy. The most important nights are December 16th-24th:
- December 16: Marks the start of the posada season.
- December 23: Known as the Night of Candles.
- December 24: Nochebuena Eve.
In some places, posadas may also take place earlier in December or even starting in late November. But the last nine days before Christmas are the most traditional and significant time for this tradition.
What happens during a traditional posada celebration?
While details vary, a traditional posada often involves:
- A procession leading to the home where the posada will be hosted.
- A child or pair dressed as Mary riding a donkey and Joseph walking beside them.
- Participants carrying candles and singing the traditional posada song asking for lodging.
- Being “rejected” from the home until finally being let in.
- Prayers and scripture readings about the Nativity.
- Breaking a paper mâché piñata filled with fruits and sweets.
- A festive party with food, drink, and more music.
The core is recreating and experiencing the Biblical story. The procession stops at designated homes, where the Holy Family begs for shelter but is turned away with a sharp “No room!” Only after begging is shelter finally granted, often coinciding with a piñata breaking.
Inside, there are prayers, reading from the Nativity story, singing villancicos (Christmas carols), and children breaking open the piñata. Then everyone enjoys hot ponche (fruit punch), tamales, buñelos (fritters), and other treats in a big festive celebration.
What happens during the posada procession?
The posada procession is led by two children dressed as Mary riding a donkey and Joseph walking beside them. Typically it’s a girl as Mary and boy as Joseph, but sometimes two girls or boys will portray both.
They are followed by other children, musicians, adult accompaniment, and everyone participating. The procession stops at 3-9 designated homes, ranging from neighbors’ houses to the parish church.
At each home, the pilgrims request lodging by singing a traditional posada song. Those inside the house respond by singing back that there is no room. This is repeated several times until finally the peregrinos (pilgrims) are welcomed inside.
Between the songs, participants read scripture, pray, and make offerings at homemade altars. When the posada is allowed inside, there is great rejoicing to symbolize Jesus finally being born after Mary and Joseph’s long journey.
What are the posada songs?
The main posada songs are call-and-response, with the peregrinos requesting lodging outside the home and the hosts singing back refusing entrance. The short verses alternate back and forth growing in intensity. Here are common Spanish posada songs:
Outside the House:
En el nombre del cielo (In heaven’s name)
os pido posada (I ask you for lodging)
pues no puede andar (since she cannot walk)
mi esposa amada. (my beloved wife)
Inside the House:
Aquí no es mesón (This is not an inn)
sigan adelante (go on ahead)
no los puedo hospedar (I cannot lodge you)
sigan ustedes su camino. (continue on your way)
The posada song has many regional variations in Mexico but this call-and-response asking for lodging is the core. Other posada songs and villancicos (Christmas carols) may be sung during the celebration as well.
What happens during the posada celebration inside?
After finally being let in, the posada becomes a beautiful community celebration. Inside the home hosting the posada:
- Prayers of thanks are offered for finding shelter.
- Passages from the Nativity are read aloud.
- Villancicos (Christmas carols) are sung
- Children break open the piñata and share the candy and fruits inside.
- Everyone enjoys ponche caliente (Mexican hot fruit punch), tamales, buñuelos (fritters), and other food and drink.
- The party goes late into the night with more singing, dancing, and general conviviality.
The posada has now transformed from a solemn reenactment into a joyous Christmas party. The food, sweets, songs, and gathering with friends and family create a festive environment as participants celebrate the nearing of Christ’s birth.
What happens on the posada finale, Nochebuena?
The posada builds momentum night by night towards the grand finale called Nochebuena, Christmas Eve. (Nochebuena translates to “Good Night” or “Holy Night”).
On Nochebuena, the posada celebration often moves to the local church. The procession is especially large and festive. Inside the church, a manger scene is unveiled and prayers offered to honor the birth of Jesus Christ.
After the special mass or service, families return home for an elaborate cena navideña (Christmas Eve dinner). They feast and exchange gifts at midnight or Christmas morning.
Nochebuena is the culmination of the posada season and when the Holy Family finally found shelter on the sacred night of Jesus’ birth.
Posada Traditions and Rituals
Posadas incorporate many cherished Christmas rituals and traditions that have become part of Mexican holiday culture.
Breaking the Piñata
The piñata is a central component of posada celebrations. Piñatas are paper mâché figures filled with candy, nuts, and fruit. Common shapes include stars, animals, birds, and traditional clay pots.
The piñata is hung from the ceiling and takes a beating as part of the festivities. Children are blindfolded and given a stick to break open the piñata and unleash the treats hidden inside. This fun tradition represents getting to the heart of the party and entering into the Christmas spirit.
Sharing Ponche and Festive Foods
Ponche caliente, hot fruit punch infused with cinnamon and sugarcane, is a beloved posada drink. Other traditional posada foods include tamales wrapped in corn husks, buñelos sweet fritters, stuffed chiles, and more Christmas sweets.
Sharing food and drink creates a spirit of community, hospitality, and celebration during posadas. It calls to mind the generosity of those who finally welcomed in Mary and Joseph.
Las pastorelas (shepherd plays) are theatrical folk plays performed during posadas. They dramatize the Nativity story with the struggle between good and evil.
Traditional characters include angelic shepherds following the star, the sneaky Devil trying to thwart them, and figures like Bartolo the miserly landlord who refuses lodging. Pastorelas bring the Christmas story humorously to life for audiences.
What’s a posada without villancicos, or Christmas carols? Traditional villancicos praise the Virgin Mary, the beauty of the Holy Night, and the Christ child in upbeat, festive arrangements.
Singing villancicos—both classic and modern—is integral to posada celebrations. Certain songs have become posada anthems, like “Los Peces en el Rio” (“The Fishes in the River”).
Farolitos are paper lanterns with candles inside that create a magical glow during posadas. They light the streets during processions and pathways to the posada.
Farolitos and luminarias symbolize guiding the Holy Family, spreading Christmas joy, and honoring the divine light of Jesus’ birth. Their pretty flickering lights add to the festive spirit.
Nacimientos are nativity scenes prominently displayed during posadas. They depict the Holy Family, angels, shepherds, animals, and baby Jesus in the manger.
On Nochebuena, the figurine of the Christ child is placed in the manger to commemorate his birth. Nacimientos visually represent the posada’s central story and meaning.
Regional Posada Variations Across Mexico
While all Mexican posadas reenact the Nativity, details and traditions vary by region, community, and family. Here are some regional posada variations:
– Radishes are carved into flowers to decorate Oaxacan posada processions.
– Children lead the posada dressed as pastores (shepherds) instead of Mary and Joseph.
– Pineapples, sugarcane, and decorated walking sticks create a festive atmosphere.
– Piñatas are shaped like seven-pointed stars with biblical symbolism.
– Some posadas are held inside caves, like those in Tulum.
– Traditional dishes include saffron-flavored rice, suckling pig, and stuffed cheese.
– Giant sparkling paper flowers called farolas adorn the streets.
– Pastorela plays feature dances like Los Moros, Los Pastores, and Los Arrieros.
– Corn tamales wrapped in banana leaves are popular posada food.
– Plays reenact King Herod meeting with Fortune Tellers.
– Moffat paper decorations create designs like angels when lit from behind.
– Sweet bread filled with figs or nuts called colación is shared.
– Lumarias are small bonfires lining paths, made of wax in paper bags.
– Pinatas are shaped like seven-point stars, sunbursts, or birds.
– Women ride on horseback in Mary’s role during the posada.
This shows the diversity of Mexican posada traditions based on local culture. Families also put their own personal spin, making each posada unique!
Posadas are beloved Christmas folk traditions in Mexico. They allow communities to symbolically reenact the Nativity story and welcome the birth of Christ through song, food, and celebration.
Key elements include the posada procession, being turned away with “No room!”, and finally welcomed inside with prayers, piñatas, festive food and drink. Posadas build for nine nights culminating on Nochebuena, Christmas Eve.
Posadas beautifully intertwine deep spirituality and faith with Mexican festive culture. Through cherished rituals, families and neighbors come together to honor holiday traditions while reminding us to open our hearts to those seeking shelter like the Holy Family.