The gift of a simple Christmas

Right in the middle of reports about disappointing Black Friday sales—will they ever be enough?—and how someone hacked Target’s computers and stole credit information on 40 million customers; and did you hear that Beyoncé gave away $37,500 in gift cards to customers at a Massachusetts Walmart during a surprise visit; and Fox News continued its seasonal grousing about the “War on Christmas”; and TV stations hawked their Christmas specials while newscasters prepared their predictable reports of chaos at U.S. airports because of holiday travel—amid all that—last night Stew and I attended our simplest and most moving Christmas celebration ever.

The Mexican tradition of Christmas “posadas” is also observed in parts of the U.S. where sometimes it has been greatly enhanced with choreography that includes donkeys, choirs, candles, piñatas, bands and participants dressed up as Mary, Joseph, shepherds and other characters. For all we know, Radio City Music Hall may be working on its own posada spectacular for next year with the mighty Wurlitzer accompanying the high-kicking Rockettes in a knock-’em-dead closing number about the time when Joseph and the pregnant Mary finally found a place to spend the night.

‘Tis a gift to be simple. 

Instead the posada last night, in the dirt-poor town of Sosnavar a couple of miles away from our ranch, was perhaps as faithful to the original Mexican tradition—and indeed to the biblical Nativity story—as one can get. There was no artifice or hoopla animating the celebration except the deep religious faith of the fifty or sixty participants, gently chanting and praying as they walked through the dark streets of this town carrying a small altar, wrapped in plastic and decorated with aluminum flowers, housing statues of Mary and Joseph.

The origin of the posada tradition—the word “posada” in Spanish means “shelter” or “inn”—is based on the story of how Joseph and the pregnant Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem so she could give birth to Jesus. The couple supposedly didn’t have any place to stay and had to go door to door asking for shelter. Like most religious traditions this one may be a little bit fact and a lot subsequent embellishment.

The posadas take place on nine consecutive nights—to signify the number of months Mary carried Jesus in her womb—and culminate on Christmas eve. Each night the altar is solemnly carried from one participating home to another, there to spend the night and await the next posada.

Looking for shelter. 

Last night was moonless and cool. In Sosnavar, where there are no street lights, the only breaks in the darkness came from an occasional string of Christmas lights in someone’s home and a clear sky strewn with stars. The festivities were marked—as is the case with practically any event in Mexico—with the hiss of a few cheap firecrackers ripping through the night and exploding with the sharp pop of a gunshot.

The posada started at seven-thirty sharp, one of the few on-time events we’ve ever attended in Mexico. People had gathered expectantly in the backyard of a home where a platform of stones and cement blocks was illuminated by a bare light bulb and decorated with two palm fronds tied in the form of an arch and several balloons, most of which already had busted leaving the shreds hanging limply. Atop this simple platform rested a movable altar wrapped in clear plastic and decorated with aluminum flowers, and housing statues of Joseph and Mary.

A woman led the participants through a machine-gun recitation of a rosary, the Hail Marys and Our Fathers flying back and forth so fast between the participants and the leader that the words were practically unintelligible to me. The faithful, though, wrapped in shawls and blankets and some carrying babies, kept up the pace. A few knelt on the bare ground. Carols and other songs broke up the staccato prayers.

After a half-hour of prayers and singing, four women took two lengths of lumber and placed them on their shoulders while two others put the rickety altar on top. Solemnly they marched into the dark streets, amid more singing and praying.

The route to the next house, where the altar would stay overnight, was not only ink-black but treacherous with stones. Sosnavar has but a few streetlights and not one inch of paved streets. The new San Miguel mayor promises to alleviate both deficiencies soon. The only lights guiding the way came from a few flashlights and the glow of cell phones.

After fifteen or twenty minutes of tentative walking we arrived at the new home for the altar. The gate was also decorated with fronds and balloons and we were met by three women who began a chanting back-and-forth with the women carrying the altar.

Joseph and Mary pleaded for shelter with the innkeepers who at first resolutely, almost rudely to my ears, refused them:

Do not be inhuman,
Show some charity,
God in Heaven
Will reward you.

You may go now
and don’t bother us anymore
because if I get angry
I will beat you. 

Didn’t sound like the makings of a Merry Christmas.

After more pleas, the innkeepers relent:

Tonight is for joy,
For pleasure and rejoicing
For tonight we will give lodging
to the Mother of God, the Son.

The procession went into the yard and gathered around an altar rather similar to the one in the previous home. The one bulb lighting the ceremony went out but after some wiggling and shuffling of extension cords, it came back on and the prayers and chanting resumed.

Let there be light: The altar will rest here until tomorrow. 

In fancier posadas the pilgrims are offered atole, a corn-based drink neither Stew nor I have ever tasted, a piñata filled with candies and small gifts for the kids, and even some food and music.

But Sosnavar, true to its poverty, had nothing to offer except prayers and carols. After the ceremony was over, everyone quietly trudged back home in the dark, to gather again the following evening.

It’s just as well that posadas here remain as simple and unadorned, with nothing to get in the way of the religious faith of the participants.

I’ve always felt sorry for the folks in Sosnavar for the forced simplicity of their lives, including their faith in God. Last night I felt a bit jealous instead.


5 thoughts on “The gift of a simple Christmas

  1. Strangely enough, I had a similar experience last night that put some joy into what has been an oddly-disappointing week. Sometimes, we just need to listen to the songs that are sung daily around us, Merry Christmas to both of you.


  2. I was driving back from a job last evening, the dinner hour but dark as spades here in the north, there were people in a number of towns outside in the cold and rain reenacting the 'posada' .


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