December 17, 2008
Hispanic Christmas traditions keep Christ the focus of Christmas
By Abraham Morales
If you’re looking for ways to keep Christ the focus of the days leading up to Christmas, you may consider borrowing some ideas from the Hispanic culture. One doesn’t need to be Hispanic to enjoy them.
During the nine days previous to Christmas, the celebration of a novena is common. In Mexico, this novena is known as posada, “lodging,” and recalls the journey Joseph and Mary took from Nazareth to Bethlehem prior to the birth of Jesus. Rich in symbolism, the posada starts with the praying of the rosary.
For the posada the faithful process with the peregrinos, “travelers,” Joseph and Mary—the characters can be portrayed by children in costume and accompanied by a donkey—who travel from home to home where they are turned away. The peregrinos lead the procession while the faithful sing Advent songs. On the ninth day at the last stop, Joseph and Mary finally receive lodging. The holy travelers are welcomed inside with a beautiful song, part of which proclaims, “Come in, holy travelers; receive this humble home that I offer you with love.”
The celebration continues with the breaking of a star-shaped piñata. The seven points of the star represent the seven capital sins. Pretty and colorful, the piñata reminds the faithful of the allure of sin.
People try breaking the piñata while blindfolded. The blindfold represents faith, wherein one believes without seeing and which is necessary to break with evil. The stick the person uses to break the piñata represents the power of God through the Gospel, which is the tool Christians have to help them fight evil.
Because the person is blindfolded, he needs others to guide him; this signifies the necessity of the Christian community, which plays an important role helping the individual Christian to fight evil. Together—the person breaking the piñata and the community helping them—represent the Church, which reminds the faithful that as a Church we need to be in communion with each other. The fruit and candy that spill out of the piñata when it’s finally broken represent God’s grace, which is given to all.
Once the piñata is broken the celebration continues with the distribution of colacion, which are similar to party favor bags, as a sign of communion and sharing. Finally, the host of the posada may offer a simple dinner.
A special Nativity reenactment common to Mexico is called pastorela, after the shepherds—pastores. Missioners in Mexico adapted the Aztec and Mayan tradition of performing plays depicting struggles between the gods of good and evil. A pastorela is a play about the days before Christmas among the shepherds. It depicts the fight between Good and Evil; the character Evil tries to convince the shepherds not to visit the Holy Family in the stable, but Evil is defeated and the shepherds take gifts to the crib. Pastorelas are performed the nine days leading up to Christmas.
Another version of the posada novena is the Novena Navideña celebrated in South America, particularly in Colombia, in which families pray around their home Nativity scene for nine days. Each night a candle is lit, which eventually creates a path toward the empty manger. The family sings joyful carols each night.
The Nativity scene plays an important role in the lives of Catholics in Latin America. During Advent, it’s a tradition to visit the Nativity scene outside the cathedral or the parish church. For Latino families Christmas dinner takes place on Christmas Eve around the Nativity scene.
Another beautiful tradition is the participation of the entire family at Christmas vigil Mass, known as Misa de Gallo, “Mass of the rooster,” referring to sunrise when the rooster crows. The Mass doesn’t actually take place at sunrise, but late on Dec. 24. After Mass, families gather at home for adoration of the infant Jesus.
In some Spanish-speaking countries there is a ceremony for rocking the infant Jesus to sleep before actually placing him in the manger, in others, the youngest family member carries the babe from member to member for each to venerate the Christ Child with a kiss before he is placed in the manger. Usually, the infant Jesus is placed in the manger at midnight. While waiting for midnight to approach, the family sings Christmas carols.
Once the babe is placed in the manger, the family gathers around the dinner table for a prayer and a meal. The eldest—or in the case of a shared celebration, the host—leads the prayer. After enjoying the meal, the family shares gifts. The presents serve as a reminder of the gift of the Incarnation.
Rather than Santa leaving gifts on Christmas Eve, in some Latin American countries the tradition is that the gifts are left by the infant Jesus. Other regions celebrate Papa Noel or St. Nicholas. In central and south Mexico, the tradition is that gifts are left by the Three Wise Men on Epiphany. In this tradition, children write a letter to the Wise Men and put it inside a shoe. In such regions children usually receive a modest gift on Christmas Eve with a larger one brought by the Three Wise Man on the feast of the Epiphany.
On Christmas Day families attend Mass. At the end of Mass there is a moment of adoration. Faithful gather around the sanctuary or around the Nativity scene inside the Church to kiss the infant Jesus image as sign of gratitude that “God is with us.” After Mass the Christmas Day continues with visiting family and friends, sharing small gifts and finishing what’s left of the Christmas Eve dinner. In some countries, such as Ecuador, families visit Nativity scenes around the city, similar to families taking in Christmas light displays in the United States.
During the octave of Christmas, many Latin American Catholics observe the Dec. 28 Day of the Innocents, which recalls the children King Herod slaughtered in his attempt to murder the newborn Jesus. For New Year’s Eve, Misa de Gallo is also a common tradition, whereby the faithful attend midnight Mass to celebrate the arrival of the new year with the Eucharist.
On the solemnity of Epiphany, the Three Wise Man deliver gifts to the children and family and friends gather for the cutting of the Kings Cake, a fruitcake with a toy infant Jesus inside. The hidden babe represents the flight of Jesus into Egypt as the Holy Family escaped Herod’s murderous plot. The person finding the hidden Jesus hosts a gathering on Feb. 2, feast of the Presentation of the Lord. On this same day the Nativity scene and all Christmas decorations are finally put away.