Posadas Now a Mission Christmas Tradition

Posted: 12/15/2010

Waldron Arkansas Posadas at a Glenmary missionEvery Christmas season, thousands of Catholics in the United States and Mexico participate in the celebration of las posadas. And at many Glenmary missions, this mid-December custom has become another important, popular Christmas tradition. St. Jude mission in Waldron, Ark., is a prime example, says pastoral associate Kathy O'Brien.

Las posadas—which literally means "the inns"—are rooted in a 16th-century Mexican tradition developed by Spanish missionaries to communicate the Christmas story to native peoples and involve them in the story. Over the centuries, posadas have become an expression of faith.

Posadas, held Dec. 16-24, involve everyone from children to adults. Usually, on each of the first eight nights, a different parish family hosts a posada in their home—with the ninth posada ending at the Catholic church on Christmas Eve. Two groups of singers participate in a posada. One group travels with the Holy Couple—represented by two parish members carrying statues of Joseph and Mary—as they go to various parishioners' houses seeking a place to stay. The other group of singers moves from house to house, stationing themselves inside each one.

With both groups singing in Spanish, the outdoor pilgrims ask homeowners for hospitality but are repeatedly turned away by the indoor group. The evening's host family finally recognizes the Holy Couple and invites them in. Then all burst out singing, "Come in, Holy Pilgrims, accept this humble place. Not of this poor house, my house, but of my heart." And each night concludes with participants gathering inside to enjoy the hospitality, refreshments and company.

Glenmary Father Neil Pezzulo first came to Waldron and Danville, Ark., in 2003 to pastor missions there. And Kathy took on her pastoral associate role in Waldron soon after. Following discussions with Father Neil and parishioners, she introduced posadas as part of the Christmas celebration starting in 2004. (Danville Catholics held posadas before Glenmary's arrival, and those celebrations have grown since then.)

"I hadn't ever experienced posadas, but I knew about them," says Kathy. "We wanted to have them in Waldron for a few reasons: First, we thought they'd add more joy and meaning to our Christmas celebrations. Second, posadas would help make our Spanish-speaking parishioners feel like they are really part of the mission. And third, they could be an evangelizing tool to reach unchurched Spanish-speaking Catholics in the larger community."

From the start, St. Jude parishioners were receptive, but none had experience with posadas, so Kathy organized them. Today there are 25-50 participants at each of the nine posada nights, and many families volunteer to be hosts. Some English-speaking mission members participate too.

"The Spanish-speaking parishioners who host posadas have also invited their own friends, including some unchurched Hispanic Catholics," she says. "The posadas have been a good way for them to get to know and connect with St. Jude and our mission members." These new friendships-usually nurtured by Kathy and mission kids-have led some of the non-parishioners to get involved with the mission.

The most striking examples of this trend are the new young people. They often begin by attending vacation Bible school or youth group meetings with encouragement from school or family friends who are parishioners. "They also join our religious education classes," says Kathy. "Sometimes their parents join the church, too. But even when parents don't join, they trust us enough to let their children be part of the mission."

Since Kathy arrived, religious education enrollment has increased from about 20 to more than 100. (Almost all catechists are English-speaking parishioners, and the Hispanic kids are bilingual.) In addition, the youth group is thriving, with members taking on ministry roles. "The real miracle—even diocesan staff say this—is that the kids want to be here and ask their parents to bring them!" She says they also associate the church with fun, community and total acceptance as Hispanics.

Spanish-speaking mission members were a minority in 2003. But because of the new Hispanic members joining over the years, about half the current mission families are Spanish-speaking and half English-speaking. "The posadas have been a contributing factor in all the positive changes," says Kathy.

On Christmas Eve, the Holy Couple statues are brought to the St. Jude Church doors and placed in the Nativity scene with the baby Jesus. Then the bilingual Christmas Mass is celebrated. Other St. Jude Christmas traditions include a party for all mission members; children's Christmas pageant; and entry—most years—of a parish float in the town's Christmas parade.

But posadas remain a central part of the mission's celebration. "They reconnect Spanish-speaking parishioners and participants with their heritage," Kathy says. "They also build community and remind people of the Holy Family's experience on the nights leading up to the first Christmas Eve—and how being welcomed made all the difference."

This article originally appeared in the December 2010 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.