(OSV News) — The Christmas season is a time anticipated not only by children, but by everyone. In a time when the cold winter permeates much of the United States, the warmth of celebrating as a family fills homes with the aromas of seasonal dishes and their hearts with joy.
Celebrations come one after another since the beginning of the Advent season. And many Hispanic families and parish communities live this time of preparation for the birth of Jesus with different traditions, always united in faith.
One of the traditions from Latin America is the Día de las Velitas (Day of the Little Candles), celebrated by Colombians Dec. 7 as a prelude to the commemoration of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, which the Catholic world celebrates Dec. 8. Many communities in the U.S. and the world join the Dec. 12 celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the liturgical feasts that summons large communities of devotees of the Patroness of the Americas — with the largest pilgrimage being to her basilica in Mexico.
Among other traditions are the Novena de Aguinaldos, held Dec. 16-24 in countries such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia, as well as the traditional posadas celebrated in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and other Latin American countries. This tradition commemorates Joseph and Mary traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem and looking for a place where the Son of God would be born.
The community of St. Louis of France Church in Los Angeles County celebrates these festivities by integrating its Hispanic community, which is about 90% of the parish, and its Filipino community. “We begin with the novena to Our Lady of Guadalupe from Dec. 3 to 12,” said Father Michael Gutierrez, pastor.
After the massive celebration of Our Lady, the parish also celebrates las posadas along with the city of La Puente, said Father Gutierrez, who was born in Los Angeles. The parish also observes Simbang Gabi, a nine-day-long Filipino celebration to prepare for the coming of Christ.
The tradition of the posadas was part of an evangelizing initiative from Augustinian missionaries in the 1500s, who gave new meaning to some of the pre-Hispanic practices of indigenous people in Mexico to refocus them on the way of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.
Now, posadas start at dusk Dec. 16 and end with a Mass on Christmas Eve. They include stopping at certain homes (designated as “inns”), where the parishioners (often children) dressed up as Mary and Joseph are surrounded by other faithful, who sing litanies to the group inside the house, hoping to be let in. They are often “turned away” each home until the final home invites them in. The group kneels around the nativity scene and prays the rosary, sings Christmas carols, shares traditional dishes and drinks — such as buñuelos, tamales, atole — and breaks a star-shaped piñata.
For Alejandro Aguilera-Titus, assistant director of Hispanic Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop, the posadas are loaded with symbolism. For example, “the piñata really represents sin, that is why the old piñatas — the authentic ones — had points that represented the seven deadly sins, then what you did was to hit the piñata as a symbol of what you wanted to break with sin, and when the candy fell, it was the grace of God that falls on you,” he said, adding that the symbol of being blindfolded as believing blindly and with the eyes of faith.
This expert also spoke of the celebration of the lulling of the Baby Jesus, a special Mexican tradition.
“This gesture of putting the child to bed is something that happens on Dec. 24,” he told OSV News. “Popular religiosity, our traditions like the posadas, like Christmas dinner and many others, give our children an experience of God and the church that takes place in the home, within the domestic church and also at the parish level.”
This year, the primarily Hispanic community of San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas, will kick off the posadas with its annual La Gran Posada, said Father Carlos Velázquez, the cathedral’s rector.
Parishioners will start at a park half a mile from the cathedral, accompanying Mary, who will ride on the back of a donkey, and Joseph. The procession includes stops at an emblematic local restaurant called Mi Tierra, the Spanish Governor’s Palace, city hall, the courthouse and finally, they will arrive at the cathedral, where Mary, Joseph, and a large group of pilgrims who have been walking and singing Christmas carols are welcomed with open doors.
“It is a wonderful moment, not only for the cathedral community, but for the whole city, and that is why we call it the Gran Posada,” Father Velázquez told OSV News. “These are moments of evangelization because we are proclaiming a story, which not only happened once in the past but is happening now in our world. There are many immigrants going from one place to another who are trying to enter and with much sadness are sometimes not admitted.”
The priest grew up in San Antonio and remembers how his grandparents would take him to the posadas as a child. “We would carry little metal lamps that we brought from Mexico that had candles inside, and there would be a procession outside the cathedral and then we would go inside,” he recalled.
In Los Angeles, another parish is known for their large nativity scene, another beloved fixture of Advent and Christmas. “There are figurines from different countries — there are Mexican, Guatemalan, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran figures that the parishioners have brought, and all this is part of the atmosphere and landscape of the nativity scene,” said Father Nicolás Sánchez, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in North Hollywood.
The massive nativity scene at St. Patrick’s parish “wants to represent the diversity that exists in our parish, whether in the cultural part, in the experience of immigration, everyone is migrating to Bethlehem,” Father Sánchez told OSV News. “We all come to the United States with an objective, but what brings us together is the church, is Jesus.”
He also highlighted that the traditional posadas are an opportunity to share the church’s presence outside the parish. “Every day, a group or ministry organizes the posada in different barrios,” he said. “We celebrate the Eucharist there in the same neighborhood as a pastoral mission of our church that goes outward, inviting people to prepare with all their hearts for the celebration of Christmas.”
Like most Hispanic Catholics, this parish community will gather for midnight Mass (Misa de gallo) Dec. 24 to celebrate the birth of the Child Jesus. Before this solemn gathering, they will share a Christmas dinner in the community.
Father Sánchez emphasized the joy of the Hispanic community while assuring that his community celebrates everything traditional, “and we try to do it from the faith of a Jesus who is born in our lives, and that we also have to make him be born in the lives of others.”
Marietha Góngora V. writes for OSV News from Bogotá, Colombia.