Las posadas are a series of festivities celebrated in Mexico and other Latin American countries during December. As with many Latin American traditions, posadas combine elements of prehispanic culture, specifically Winter solstice traditions, with the Christmas celebrations brought by the Spaniards.
In Mexico, the Winter solstice festival was one of the most significant celebrations of the Aztecs, since their sun and war god Huitzilopochtli was born during the month of panquetzaliztli, equivalent to the month of December. The Winter solstice celebrations lasted twenty days of the month and it was observed in the temple’s patios. At the end of the month, the festivities were held at peoples’ homes, where food and little statues called tzoatl were given to all the guests.
During the Colony, Spanish missionaries merged the Winter solstice festival traditions with the preparation for Catholic Christmas, giving origin to the posadas. Primarily, posada in Spanish means providing accommodations, food, and drink for travelers. From this idea, the plural form, “las posadas” encompasses a nine-day interval representing the nine-month pregnancy of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ.
Traditionally, posadas begin on December 16th and finish on the night of Christmas eve. Mexican posadas include dramatizations of events in the Catholic Bible leading to the birth of Jesus Christ. The people who attend posadas divide into two groups: the first is designated to be “innkeepers”; and the second represents Mary and Joseph asking for a place to stay for the night. The first landlords reject Mary and Joseph, symbolizing the hardships of their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. After several attempts at finding a place to rest, a generous landlord receives the pilgrims by the end of the dramatization. In many homes, after or during the performances, it is customary to sing traditional Christmas carols in Spanish.
Nowadays, posadas in Mexico are celebrated throughout December in peoples’ homes to socialize before the Christmas holidays. The key elements of posadas are piñatas, aguinaldos , traditional Mexican food such as tamales and buñuelos and hot beverages such as ponche and atole. Given the extensive variety of Mexican gastronomy, the dishes served at the posada can vary from region to region, as well as the content of the piñatas.
On this festive occasion, piñatas are filled with different kinds of candy, little toys, and seasonal fruit- oranges, mandarin oranges and caña de azúcar. All the children in the posada take turns to crush the piñata and get the presents inside. Aguinaldos, little bags with the same candy and fruit used to fill the piñata, are given mostly to teenagers and adults at the end of the evening.
Traditional Christmas piñatas are usually star-shaped, and they come in a variety of colors. Nonetheless, in recent years, modern holiday piñatas have all sorts of shapes and they now feature other popular symbols from other countries’ traditions such as Santa Claus, snowmen, or even reindeers.
Both piñatas and home decorations for the posadas feature the Mexican indigenous flower Nochebuena, which roughly translates to “a good night”. Nochebuena is also the name given in Spanish to Christmas Eve, December 24th. Nochebuenas or Poinsettias were cultivated by the Aztecs for use in traditional medicine. Later on, they became associated with the Christmas holiday after the Spaniards settled in the country and began using them for seasonal decorations.