If you’re ever in Mexico or Central America between December 16th and December 24th, you may encounter this peculiar and ancient tradition on virtually any street. Somewhat like our tradition of Christmas caroling, las posadas have a significant religious undertone and are a means of preparing for la navidad. In the Catholic religion, it’s common to practice what are known as novenarios, nine days of praying and fasting dedicated to Christ, Mary or particular saints. Las posadas are a symbolic reenactment of the days leading up to Christ’s birth and involve processions in which persons dressed up as Mary and Joseph, or in some cases carrying statues, go from house to house in search of a place to stay. A different house is designated for each night, and the procession follows Mary and Joseph, carrying candles and singing villancicos , or Christmas carols. The occupants of the house at first refuse entry to the assembly at their doorstep, and carols are exchanged between those inside and those awaiting outside. At some point, those inside “realize” that Mary and Joseph are among the group, and they invite everyone inside for food and drink. It’s traditional to pray a rosary together before continuing the festivities.
The piñata has a special significance during las posadas. We normally associate it with birthday parties, but during las posadas it is strung in each of the houses visited by Mary and Joseph. After the couple and their escorts have gained entry to the house, the piñata is broken to symbolize the ending of darkness and the coming of light. Normally, the piñatas used are star-shaped and have seven distinct points, which represent the seven deadly sins. The palo used to break the piñata represents the power of God over sin, and each child is blindfolded and turned 33 times (representing the years that Christ lived) before taking a stab at it. There’s even a special song which accompanies the breaking of the piñata, and if you pay close attention to the lyrics, you’ll note the allusions to these religious precepts. Once the piñata is broken, the treats within fall to the ground, representing the outpouring of God’s mercy and foreshadowing the birth of Christ.
I have fond memories of watching las posadas in the small town in Northern Mexico where I was privileged to spend a Christmas. I also witnessed them in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, but these were more modern in that the participants drove Mary and Joseph around in a pick-up truck. There are definitely lots of variations on this theme, and as societies turn more secular, las posadas have become, in some places, less of a religious celebration and more an excuse for a party.
Incidentally, the term posada means “inn” or “lodge” (or “lodging”) and is used extensively in non-religious contexts. Buscar posada is the equivalent of buscar hospedaje. Many hotels in Latin America, and even in the States, use the term in their names.
Here’s a news clip (in Spanish) about las posadas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zhj_URGzq4E