Across the United States this Christmas season, churches will present cantatas and stage Nativity scenes. Congregations will sing “Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night” and other well-loved hymns and carols. They will light Advent candles, make special offerings and once again act out the familiar story from Matthew and Luke.
But in Apex, N.C., one congregation will be taking part in a ritual that is unfamiliar to many Protestants in this country. For the fifth year in a row, Fiesta Cristiana Faith Community, the Hispanic ministry of Apex United Methodist Church, will be sponsoring Las Posadas, a nine-night celebration that re-creates Mary and Joseph’s last-minute search for lodging before Jesus’ birth.
The church is one of a growing number of Protestant congregations nationwide -- especially in areas with a growing Hispanic population -- that will be hosting Las Posadas. A popular tradition in many Latin American countries, especially Mexico, Las Posadas is a festive ritual with powerful resonance in a changing America, one with an important lesson at its core.
“It’s a playful celebration that has a very serious message about hospitality,” said the Rev. José Luis Villaseñor, pastor of Fiesta Cristiana. “To open your homes to strangers -- that is the message of Las Posadas.”
When Villaseñor started Fiesta’s Las Posadas in 2008, he didn’t know what to expect. But it’s clear that his congregation must be doing something right. Each year, people -- both Anglo and Hispanic -- keep coming back, and other churches in the area are launching their own Las Posadas.
“I think it might be because we’ve been authentic to Las Posadas but adapted it to fit where we are now,” Villaseñor said. “We’re using the tradition in new ways to connect people, especially children, to the Hispanic culture and to the Christmas story.”
Connection is a big part of what Las Posadas has always been about for Camerina Calderón. As a child growing up in Veracruz, Mexico, she loved the Las Posadas celebrations, because they connected her with her community, her culture and her Catholic faith.
But after Calderón moved to the United States 15 years ago, eventually settling in Apex, the tradition ended for her when she could not find any churches that were doing it. Now, thanks to Fiesta Cristiana, Las Posadas is forging connections for her again, both to her roots in Mexico and to her new home.
Questions to consider
Questions to consider:
- Who are the strangers in your community? What is your church or organization doing to welcome them?
- Las Posadas connects people and cultures. How well does your church's worship forge connections? What new worship practices would help?
- Las Posadas is a tradition that is flexible. How can your congregation's traditions be adapted to be more hospitable? How can leaders nurture flexiblity and creativity in others?
- We truly see the stranger only when we know their particular story and tradition. What can your church or organization do to become more inter-culturally competent?
“I like that Pastor Villaseñor started this tradition again,” Calderón said. “No other church was doing Posadas. It was nice to have a piece of my culture and country here.”
Understanding a 400-year-old tradition
Though Calderón had known and loved Las Posadas her entire life, Villaseñor definitely had not. When he was appointed as an associate pastor at Apex UMC in 2008, the El Salvador native and Duke Divinity graduate had never heard of the tradition.
Charged with starting a Hispanic ministry for the church (what would become Fiesta Cristiana), Villaseñor launched several programs such as computer and English as a second language classes. When he set out to add a worship experience, another pastor suggested he consider doing a Las Posadas.
Unfamiliar with the tradition, Villaseñor began researching it, turning to, among other sources, the United Methodist Book of Worship. There he found a short history of Las Posadas and liturgies for both Advent and Christmas Eve Las Posadas services.
Villaseñor learned that the 400-year-old tradition was started in Mexico by Augustinian Father Diego de Soria to introduce Christianity to the New World. Originally a Catholic practice, it has now expanded to other strands of Christianity. A traditional Las Posadas -- the word posada means “inn” or “lodging” -- is celebrated over the nine nights leading up to Christmas Day, Dec. 16 to Dec. 24.
On each night -- one for each month that Mary was pregnant with Jesus -- children and adults join in a procession as pilgrims, or “peregrinos,” as they simulate the journey that Mary and Joseph took in search of lodging. Playing the roles of Mary, Joseph, angels, wise men, shepherds and others, the pilgrims go from predesignated home to predesignated home, asking a series of “innkeepers” in song for a place to stay -- with all but the last innkeeper denying their requests.
At that final house, the pilgrims are welcomed and invited in, and a celebration is held, with a variety of foods and treats, punch, and a piñata.
“It is a big, big party,” said Delia Rangel, a member of Fiesta Cristiana who immigrated to North Carolina from Mexico about 18 years ago. “Growing up, everybody in the entire city came out for it.”
The tradition is common in areas of the United States where Hispanics, mainly those with ties to Mexico, have long resided, such as in the Southwest, Los Angeles and New York, said Aidé Acosta, a scholar who has studied Las Posadas. But it has also been gaining traction in the past few years in places like North Carolina, where the Hispanic population more than doubled between 2000 and 2010.
“It’s still very much a recent phenomenon in places like North Carolina, but it’ll become increasingly more common as more Hispanics establish roots there,” said Acosta, a visiting assistant professor in American and Latino studies at Indiana University. “Traditions like Las Posadas will play an important role in community formation.”
That power to help form community was one of the primary reasons Villaseñor decided to introduce Las Posadas as Fiesta’s first worship experience. When he talked with members from Mexico about the possibility of adding Las Posadas, their eyes lit up, and many were excited that their children could now know the tradition as well.
He figured that immigrants from other Latin American countries could also relate to Las Posadas and its focus on a family searching for shelter and welcome.
“That first year we were trying to build relationships,” he said. “We wanted to set the tone that we would be a welcoming community. What is a more fitting way to start a worship experience?”
More than 500 people attended one or more nights of that first Las Posadas in 2008. Since then, attendance has climbed to as high as 700.
Replicating Las Posadas
With the success of Fiesta Cristiana’s Las Posadas, the church no longer has to publicize the event, especially as more churches in the area have started offering their own celebrations. That’s good news to Villaseñor, who hopes even more churches and communities in areas with a growing Hispanic population will take up the tradition.
He’s even in talks with the N.C. Council of Churches to develop a curriculum for Las Posadas that can be shared with other churches. Why? Because Las Posadas “not only gives the Hispanic culture something to connect to but exposes non-Hispanics to the rich Hispanic culture,” building bridges between different ethnic groups.
First United Methodist Church of Cary, a predominately Anglo congregation, is among the churches that Fiesta Cristiana has inspired to start its own Las Posadas. The Rev. Alice Kunka, an ordained deacon and pastor of Christian formation at the Cary church, oversees the church’s Hispanic outreach efforts, which provide about 100 families with programs such as a bilingual Bible study, an ESL class and after-school tutoring.
As the former chair of the Hispanic/Latino ministries committee for the UMC’s North Carolina Conference, Kunka has long known about Las Posadas. When she heard of Fiesta’s version, she asked Villaseñor whether First UMC Cary might participate in hosting one of the nine nightly events, and he readily agreed. So for the past two years, First UMC has hosted one of Fiesta’s celebrations while learning how to replicate it at their own church.
One of the beauties of Las Posadas is its adaptability, Villaseñor said. Churches can modify it to fit their contexts and needs. Fiesta Cristiana, for example, added Christmas carols and hymns in both English and Spanish.
Las Posadas can be a public event held in town squares or a private event held in homes. Fiesta Cristiana’s celebration is a mixture of both. On one of the nights each year, for example, Fiesta partners with the Town of Apex to host a celebration for the entire Apex community at the Halle Cultural Arts Center, where the congregation meets every Sunday. Other celebrations are held in the homes of Fiesta members.
The length of Las Posadas is also flexible. Some churches, like Fiesta Cristiana, hold it for the full traditional nine days; others, for just one night, or any number in between. This year, First UMC Cary will hold its first Las Posadas independent of Fiesta for one night, Dec. 19, in its fellowship hall. The church has invited families who are served by its Hispanic ministries to attend, as well as the church’s entire congregation.
Kunka hopes that Las Posadas will help members understand that immigrants still struggle to find shelter today and inspire them to be more intentional about developing relationships with Hispanics or those in other ethnic groups different from their own. She also hopes that people from other churches will attend and then take up the tradition.
“We’re replicating what Fiesta has done, so maybe someone will attend ours and go back to their churches or communities and replicate it,” Kunka said. “Fiesta Cristiana and the Hispanic community opened up their traditions to us, and we want to preserve the tradition and introduce it to others.”
Welcoming the stranger
Since starting Las Posadas at Fiesta Cristiana, Villaseñor estimates that he and his family have participated in about 35 processionals. Sometimes, he wonders whether his three children, ages 6 to 12, will become bored with the event, having participated in so many. But then he remembers the many times his children have heard a Christmas song on the radio and asked, “Are we doing Las Posadas again this year?” And when he answers yes, they always respond with excitement.
As his children have discovered, no matter how many times you participate, Las Posadas always feels fresh. Though the structure and overall message stays the same, night after night, year after year, every celebration brings out different people. And if you attend nearly every processional during a multinight Las Posadas, you can rotate the characters you play and the costumes you wear. Las Posadas gives just enough variety, Villaseñor said.
But it’s the familiarity that draws people back.
“I’m not Mexican, but I have adopted it as part of my practice as a Christian, because the core message of Las Posadas is universal,” he said. “It is the gospel story -- to welcome the stranger. That is what the Christmas story is about. To hear that story over and over again, it’ll become a part of you.”
Watching Calderón over the years, he has seen how story becomes practice.
Back in 2008, when Fiesta organized its first Las Posadas, Calderón hosted one of the parties at her home. Beforehand, Calderón warned her neighbors that they might see some Anglos and other strangers in the neighborhood.
About 65 people showed up, filling Calderón’s home and spilling outside into the neighborhood, drawing the attention of curious neighbors.
“What are all these Anglos doing here?” they asked her.
They were there for the same reason she had participated in all those Las Posadas long ago in Veracruz, Calderón explained. They were re-enacting the journey that Mary and Joseph took before Jesus’ birth. They were carrying on a tradition, sharing it with the next generation and living out its underlying message of hospitality.
“This is a tradition that connects me to my culture, to others and to my children,” Calderón said. “And the message can be for anybody. We all are sojourners who ask others to open their doors, their hearts, to us.”