By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
En el nombre del cielo os pido posada pues no puede andar mi esposa amada.
(In the name of Heaven I beg you for lodging, for, my beloved wife cannot walk.) – traditional Mexican posada song
The Advent celebration of Las Posadas (The Inns) has to be one of the nicest Hispanic customs currently enriching parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
And one of the nicest things about it is that no two places seem to observe it exactly the same way.
However it’s done, it’s a refreshing reminder of the meaning of Christmas in an age when religious carols and crèches are banned from the public square for fear of offending non-Christians, schools celebrate “Winter Festival,” and store clerks wish one a guardedly bland “Happy Holidays.”
In its original Mexican form, Las Posadas is spread over nine nights, culminating on Christmas Eve. By tradition this represents the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy or the nine days of journey from Galilee to Bethlehem.
In Holy Innocents Parish in Juniata Park it will be celebrated Dec. 16-24. During Las Posadas a candlelit procession, which includes blessed images and musicians with tambourines, guitars and drums, will travel to various houses where Joseph will plead for shelter for his pregnant wife. Members of the procession sing the plea of Joseph, while those indoors will sing the innkeeper’s response, according to Vincentian Father Michael Mazurchuk, who ministers to Hispanics in the very multinational Holy Innocents Parish.
Ultimately those in the procession will be admitted, and once inside, the tradition will continue with readings from the Bible, faith sharing and celebration.
“Every night we have about 30 to 40 people involved,” Father Mazurchuk said.
In choosing houses for the procession to visit, the parish especially concentrates on newer arrivals. In most places the singing and prayers are entirely in Spanish. Because Holy Innocents is multicultural, last year the final service was bilingual with parts in English, and this year it will be trilingual with parts also in Vietnamese.
“It’s a special time of the year and people look forward to it,” said Nora Lopez, who is music minister at Holy Innocents. She helps plan the Las Posadas and participates along with her husband and children.
Las Posadas has its origin in Mexico, but has spread through other Hispanic countries. Lopez is Puerto Rican; others in her group are from Mexico, Colombia and other Latin American countries.
At Fishtown’s St. Michael Parish, one of the oldest neighborhood parishes in Philadelphia, the congregation is small, and Las Posadas will be conducted Dec. 15-23, and celebrated on a more modest scale. Only one house will be visited each evening and the final “inn” will be the rectory.
“It’s a wonderful tradition,” said Father William Ayres, “It’s a way to keep focus on what Christmas is all about – welcoming the Lord and preparing a place for him.”
You don’t have to be Hispanic to enjoy Las Posadas. Children at Our Lady of Fatima Parish, Bensalem, which has a sizable Mexican population, will visit the nearby St. Elizabeth’s Convent, the motherhouse of the Blessed Sacrament Sisters, on Sunday, Dec. 14 at 2:30 p.m. to share the custom with the Sisters. “They knock on doors, they sing, they have prayers in the chapel and then there is a piñata in the hall,” said Sister Agnes
At Kensington’s Visitation B.V.M. Parish Las Posadas won’t mean a single procession, it will mean many processions, according to Redemptorist Father Bruce Lewandowski. With the assistance of the New York-based Missionary Sisters of Perpetual Help, more than 30 “family assemblies” have been created in the parish. These family assemblies, similar to small base communities in Latin America, might consist of only a few streets. They form small neighborhood spiritual groups, but come together with the entire congregation for liturgies. All will gather at the parish in Dec. 14 for a Christmas concert and a blessing of the images of St. Mary, Joseph and the donkey. The actual Posadas will begin on Dec. 16, and typically each night three homes will be visited in each family assembly. Following tradition, the Holy Family will be denied entry at all but the last house visited.
This is the second year of the family assemblies, according to Father Lewandowski, and it’s a different way of looking at Church and a way of extension of the Church to the neighborhoods. So far it has resulted in more people coming to church and more children in PREP, according to Father Lewandowski, who might have added, “many more Posadas.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.