Pick a word that means Christmas. Not tree, mall, wrapping or debt. Something along the lines of virgin, manger or swaddling clothes. OK, swaddling clothes is two words, and you can’t find swaddling clothes at babyGap anyway. But the Christian tradition has given us many words — shepherds, angels and star are others — that give a familiar ring to the season.
What about hospitality? In the nine days leading up to Christmas, Mexican Christians focus on that theme as they re-enact the story of José and the very-pregnant María seeking shelter — posada — where Jesus can be born.
“The story is connected to people’s experience of being on the move and looking for shelter and asking people they don’t know for help. That’s the story of Mary and Joseph, but also the struggles of people here,” said the Rev. Patrick Cabello-Hansel, whose church co-sponsors Las Posadas celebrations in South Minneapolis.
Echoes of mmigrant experience
The immigrant experience lends intimacy to the ritual of Las Posadas, in which participants take on the identities either of María and José or of the innkeepers who turn the expectant couple away.
“For many Hispanics, even my parents when they first came here many, many years ago, you’re in a foreign land, you’re new, trying to find shelter, trying to find food, and it’s very difficult,” said Marie Zellner, a member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in St. Paul, where La Posada happens each night from Dec. 16 to Dec. 24.
In the singing of songs, La Posada repeats the ritual of knocking and being turned away until a designated “innkeeper” finally allows the couple shelter. A fiesta begins, tostadas and cinnamon hot chocolate are served, and piñatas entertain throngs of children. In Mexico, the re-enactment takes place for nine consecutive nights, and participants go door to door throughout neighborhoods. The observance is less elaborate in Minnesota; Our Lady of Guadalupe’s takes place in the church.
Cabello-Hansel’s congregation, St. Paul Lutheran in Minneapolis, for the second consecutive year is co-sponsoring La Posada with the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre and Mercado Central on Lake Street. Although tickets are required for the six sold-out shows at the theater, participants then walk two blocks to the church, where a fiesta concludes La Posada.
“Every night we’ve picked up people as we’ve walked through the neighborhood who come along and join in the celebration,” Cabello-Hansel said.
As Ana María Pineda writes in “Practicing Our Faith,” “Although Las Posadas is a beautiful, engaging ritual, the reality it addresses is a painful one: the reality of human need and exclusion.”
Centuries-old tradition taps church concern for hospitality
As a centuries-old custom, Las Posadas taps into a modern concern for U.S. churches: hospitality. Nearly every church-growth expert writes about it. Religion scholar Diana Butler Bass spent four years studying successful mainline Protestant churches and found hospitality to be one of their key traits. It’s not just coffee and doughnuts after services. She says it’s more like a Goth teenager embracing an elderly woman on the way to Holy Communion, or the kitchen crew thanking a homeless person for coming to the church breakfast.
Las Posadas doesn’t allow the party to happen until it recalls the experience of exclusion. Those portraying the innkeepers sing: “Aqui no es meson sigan adelante; yo no puedo abrir no sea algun tunante” (“This is not an inn; move on — I cannot open lest you be scoundrel”). According to the custom, it wasn’t until God warmed the heart of someone to let in the strangers that the celebration could begin.
Non-Latino Christians would likely count that among the meanings of Christmas, even if “hospitality” doesn’t connote Christmas like light, hope or peace.