In Mexico, Christmas celebrations start on December 16 with the first of nine daily parties called ‘posadas’. ‘Posada’ in Spanish means inn or shelter, and these celebrations commemorate Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter during their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. On December 24, the birth of Jesus is announced with fireworks and the ringing of church bells, and after midnight mass families get together to enjoy a banquet of traditional Christmas dishes.
This series of pre-Christmas parties is uniquely Mexican. It is believed that they were created by the early Spanish missionaries at the Convent of St Augustine in Acolman, a small town near the pyramids of Teotihuacan, with the purpose of converting the Indians to Catholicism. In 1587, Pope Sixtus V granted the Augustinian priests a special permission to celebrate a novena of masses before Christmas to represent the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy. These masses were celebrated in the atrium and included Christmas carols, and fireworks and piñatas after the mass.
Eventually, they became neighborhood celebrations, and today each of these nine nights a party is held in a different home in the neighborhood with both adults and children participating. Even during difficult political or economic times, ‘posadas’ have been celebrated every year without interruption, from the poorest homes to the wealthiest mansions.
The ‘posada’ starts with a religious procession in which each person carries a small lighted candle. A clay figurine representing Mary sitting on a donkey with Joseph leading the way is carried at the head of the procession, usually by children. As they walk around the house they recite the litany of the Virgin Mary. At the end of the litany, the procession, representing Joseph, goes to the door of the house to ask for shelter (pedir posada) from a small group of guests that remained inside; they represent the master of the house. The traditional singing starts with these verses:
‘En el nombre del cielo,
os pido posada
pues no puede an
mi esposa amad
(‘ In Heaven’s name
I’m asking for shelter
for my beloved wife
can walk no more’)
Those inside answer:
‘Aqui no es mesón
yo no puedo abrir
no sea algún tunante’
(‘This is not an inn,
be on your way.
I cannot open up
you might be a
The verses continue with more desperate requests by Joseph and stronger rejections by the master until he realizes who the pilgrims are and the doors are opened to let them in:
‘Entren Santos Peregrinos
reciban este rincón
que aunque pobre es la morada
os la doy de corazón’.
(‘Come in Holy Pilgrims
to this humble place
though the lodging is poor
I offer it gladly’)
At this point everybody goes in and the party starts: first a hot punch usually made with sugar cane, guavas, prunes, apples and cinnamon, is served to warm up those who remained outside. Adults add ‘piquete’, a shot of rum or tequila, to the punch.
Everybody is now ready for the game of the ‘piñata’! ‘Piñatas’, those beautiful and colorful decorated clay pots, so typically Mexican, are believed to have originated in China. They must have been brought to America in the seventeenth century by the commercial fleet known as the ‘Nao de China’. Mexican artisans adopted this art and, using multi-colored tissue papers, they transformed them into stars, fruits, animals and storybook characters. Piñata artisans spend hours lovingly decorating them, in spite of the fact that their finished product will have a very short life span.
The piñata, filled with seasonal fruits and candies, is suspended from a rope attached to a tree on one side, and pulled from the other side by a person who tries to prevent the guests from breaking it by making it sway as they strike their blows.
The piñata symbolizes the devil, and each guest, blindfolded, takes turns at striking it with a broomstick until it breaks and the goodies fall out. The symbolism here is blind faith striking evil to let good come out. As it breaks, everybody runs to gather as many goodies as possible to take home with them.
After the piñata comes dinner: traditional posada fare is tamales, buñuelos, atole and café de olla. The tamales are made with corn dough, softened with lard and beaten until the dough reaches ‘water stage’: a small ball of dough should float when put in a glass of water; if it sinks, it needs to be beaten more. The dough is then shaped into small individual logs that are filled with pork or chicken and different sauces for savory tamales, or with dried fruits for the sweet ones. Each log is then covered with a corn leaf and cooked in a steamer, where they are kept hot until serving time.
Street vendors with huge baskets filled with freshly made buñuelos sprout in every town during this time of the year, selling the crisp, tortilla-shaped fritters. They are sprinkled with granulated sugar, but some people like to pour a brown sugar syrup over the buñuelo right before eating them. They are still made in many homes, but since there are so many things to prepare for the posada buying them is an excellent option.
Atole, a thick hot drink made with corn flour dissolved in milk or water and flavored with fruits or chocolate is the children’s favorite, while most adults prefer the Café de Olla that gets its name from the earthenware pot in which it is prepared. It is traditionally served in small glazed earthenware cups. Would you like to try it during this holiday season?
Café de Olla
6 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
4 ounces brown sugar
4 ounces dark roasted coffee, medium ground
Boil water in a deep earthenware pot with the cinnamon and sugar for 5 minutes. Turn heat off and add coffee. Stir well, cover and let steep for 5 minutes. Strain into another pot and keep warm. It can be reheated, making sure it doesn’t boil.
Mari Angeles Gallardo is a f&w writer for the El Paso Times and the Mexican magazine Paula
Photo: making tamales (C. Scaffidi)