In the United States, we often hear about the 12 Days of Christmas and the celebrations and gifts that surround that tradition. But the 12 Days of Christmas have nothing on the more than month-long holiday celebrations traditionally held by Latino communities in this country and abroad. So it comes as no surprise that around this time of year, I get a lot of questions from my non-Latino friends and associates, particularly those who work with the Latino community, about “what’s a posada?” or “what’s this thing they’re celebrating in January?” I know, there’s a lot of culture, tradition and history around Latino holidays, so I thought I would take a few moments to give a quick guide to celebrating Christmas Latino style.
The holidays for us really begin December 3, with the beginning of the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, considered the Mother of the Americas. The nine day celebration, which culminates on December 12, honors the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego, an Aztec Indian, near Mexico City in 1531. This event is viewed as a watershed moment in bringing Catholicism to Mexico and Central and South America.
Soon after the Virgin of Guadalupe festivities end, the posadas begin on December 16. Posadas are another 9-day celebration, this one recreating Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage as they searched for lodging and ended in a manger. Each night during the posadas, children recreate the pilgrimage, walking from home to home singing villancicos, traditional Christmas carols. Many of the children play home-made instruments and some even dress as Mary and Joseph and ride down the street on a small donkey. Eventually, they end at the host home, where they are treated to celebrations, drink champurrado and enjoy a piñata party.
The posadas lead all the way to Noche Buena, Christmas Eve, perhaps the most celebrated of the Christmas holidays. More than Christmas Day, Noche Buena is when the family gathers, eats Christmas dinner together and celebrates. Noche Buena is an all-night affair, which includes la Misa del Gallo, Mass of the Rooster, a midnight mass marking the beginning of Christmas Day. The mass gets its name from the rooster, who crows the beginning of a new day. Christmas morning is greeted with family and friends, and, of course, tamales. It’s also on Christmas Day when families place the baby Jesus figurine in their nativity scenes, signifying that Christ has been born.
As Latinos internalize many American cultures, kids have readily embraced the concept of Santa Claus and gift giving on Noche Buena and Christmas Day. Traditionally, however, Latino children looked elsewhere for gifts—the three wise men. Dia de los Reyes, Three Kings Day, celebrate the magi arriving at the manger bearing gifts. On January 5, Latino children throughout Latin America and the United States leave out small stacks of hay for the horses and camels, and milk and cookies for the Magi. Many kids also leave their shoes out to let the three wise men know where to leave the presents. When the kids wake up in the morning of January 6, presents are waiting for them near their shoes. That morning the family gathers and enjoys a rosca de reyes, a ring-shaped bread decorated with fruits and place the three kings figurines in the manger.
So from December 3 through January 6, Latino families join in celebration of the holidays. There are no turtle doves, but there are Misas del Gallo. There are no pipers piping, but there are children playing instruments as they parade down the street in the posadas. No golden rings, but a delicious rosca at the end of the festivities. I hope this helps shed a little bit of light on our celebrations, culture and traditions, and I would personally like to invite you to join these festivities in your community. You’ll have a great time and will make your holiday celebrations even richer.