A Christmas Season Rain Check
Last year, we were invited to a Christmas posada with our Yucatecan friends, but family events north of the border kept us away. This year, as the holidays approached, we remembered our promised posada and called in our rain check.
As part of a company where most of the workers are Yucatecan, we often find ourselves the token extranjeros (foreigners). As the evening began, we felt this role clearly, as we found ourselves surrounded by people who had been to dozens of posadas… but this was our first one.
What Is a Posada?
We don’t have posadas in our shopping bag of traditions. We have Christmas parties and family get-togethers. We have tramped around a snowy neighborhood singing Christmas carols in exchange for hot chocolate or sung carols on the back of hay wagons. We have spent the obligatory hours in office parties, trying to drink enough to have fun but not so much that we embarrass ourselves. We have watched or starred in school Christmas pageants and attended midnight masses in faraway places. This year, we discovered that the Mexican posada brings elements of all these experiences together into one unique tradition that is familiar to nearly all Mexicans.
A posada is heavily steeped in religious story and tradition. Apparently, though it started as a Catholic tradition, the posada ritual is also honored by non-religious Mexicans. The word posada itself means “inn”, and the story that is enacted during the event is the story of Mary and Joseph being turned away when looking for a place to rest and give birth to the baby Jesus. In smaller and more traditional towns in Mexico, groups of people will actually dress up and put a Mary on a donkey and walk through the streets, searching for a place to stay. Scores of villagers will turn them away from each door, as they sing the traditional posada song, which has 18 verses (nine each for the petitioners and the refusers). The last two stanzas welcome the lodgers into what we know today as the nativity scene.
In urban and more modern areas in Mexico, the posada event includes a more abstract version of this story. We were attending our posada in San Ramon Norte, one of the northern residential areas in Merida. The attendees to this event ranged in age from three-year-olds to us, in our mid-fifties. The majority, including our host and hostess, could be said to belong to the upwardly-mobile middle class of Mexico. They were all beautifully dressed, bilingual and most of them also well-traveled. There wasn’t a live donkey in sight, but there were two animatronic reindeer and a jolly Santa alongside the brightly-lit Christmas tree.
Our Posada Gets Underway
After the hour of arrival, during which attendees slowly drifted in and exchanged kisses and greetings, the rituals began. The words to the posada song had been printed and copied and were distributed, and we don’t think it was JUST for the attending extranjeros. The party was divided in half by the host. Half of the attendees gathered inside the modern living room, while the other half gathered outside the sliding glass door between the house and the swimming pool, with its swim-up, sunken bar. This was hardly a re-enactment of wandering through Bethlehem, but it was sufficient for our purposes, and from what we understood, pretty typical for this part of Merida.
The song was sung perfunctorily by some and enthusiastically by others… just like a Christmas carol. The children (there were four at this party, all under the age of eight) could hardly contain their excitement and enjoyed listening (and learning) while the adults sang to pedir posada (ask for shelter). The children really came alive when the song ended and the piñata was lowered from the second story balcony of the house.
The piñata was one of those glittery affairs that you only see this time of year in Mexico, and during this time, you see them everywhere. (We once tried to help a hotel owner decorate with these seven-pointed star piñatas, but were told they are only made during Christmas time… and no amount of money was going to make it otherwise.) These piñatas, by the way, are allegorical. Each of the seven points stands for one of the Seven Deadly Sins, so Catholics and agnostics alike can feel motivated to bang away with that baseball bat.
Of course, with this piñata on this night, the children went first. The two girls attending seemed a lot more interested in taking photos than in hitting the piñata. (So much so that we have requested their resumes as future Yucatan Living reporters!) Even at the ages of seven and eight, the two boys already appeared practiced at the art of piñata abuse. After a few more hits from eager adults, it was obvious why someone needs to be on the other end of the rope, raising and lowering the piñata to keep clever strikers from figuring out where the piñata is located and ending the game a little too soon.
Eventually, of course, the Seven Deadly Sins were overcome and victory was declared in a lluvia de dulces, a shower of colorful candy, collected by children and adults alike. Each of the vanquished points of the star, by the way, makes a handy collection bucket for all the little goodies.
Rama Rama, Novena, Posada
For many years around this time, we have enjoyed the nightly visits of neighbor children singing the Rama, Rama song in exchange for a few pesos. The night of our posada we learned that this tradition is a rather provincial one, common in the southern states from Veracruz to the Yucatan Peninsula. In fact, we were told, in the 60’s and 70’s, the people of Yucatan didn’t do much in the way of posadas… The main traditions were the Rama, Rama visits and novenas. The Rama, Rama visits in many towns are a way that children save up money for a posada, and the visits end when the novenas and posadas begin.
Novenas are devotional prayer rituals performed on nine consecutive days, and they symbolize the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy. Those nine consecutive days are the nine days leading up to Christmas. Most Meridanos celebrate Christmas Mass on the evening of December 24th, and December 25th is a day of rest and visiting with family. It is not traditionally a day to exchange gifts. In fact, the day for gifts is really just for the children, and the gifts are distributed on the very last day of the Christmas season, January 6, called Tres Reyes, Three King’s Day. Until that day, a Mexican Christmas is not over.
How Do Meridanos Celebrate Christmas?
Around the first of December, most Meridano families will set up their Christmas trees with a nativity scene, or crèche, in their house. When they do this, they take the opportunity to explain to the children the Christmas story. As you walk the streets of Merida centro at night during this time of year, you can see elaborate set-ups in many homes, complete with lights and candles and hundreds of figurines collected over the years.
In Merida, you will see celebrations, parties, altars and novenas from December 3rd to the 12th, but those are for La Virgen de Guadalupe, the Empress of America. Children may visit your door singing the Rama, Rama song in the first weeks of December. Christmas novenas and posadas start on the 16th and continue to the 25th.
On the table during the month may also be the Advent wreath, decorated with four candles, one for each Sunday before Christmas. There are three purple candles and a pink candle for the last Sunday. Each candle has a meaning. The first one stands for Hope, the second one for Preparation, the third for Joy and the fourth for Love.
Another Christmas tradition that Merida partakes in is the pastorela. These were described to us as Christmas pageants, plays accompanied by music that is funny, sometimes irreverent, but still always full of teaching moments about the Christmas story. Pastorelas also include piñatas, and often include more traditional food and drink like tamales, atole, ponche and other goodies. Pastorelas are more of a Mexican than a Yucatecan tradition, but are performed in many schools throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.
At the party, talking to our casual Yucatecan experts over dinner, we wondered if the Mexican traditions of this time of year were going the way of Dia de Los Muertos; if they were being replaced by North-of-the-Border Christmas traditions the way that Halloween is taking over on October 31st in some parts of Mexico. We learned that there is some of that, but that schools and parents are also doing their best to instill the Mexican traditions continually. Apparently, pastorelas, ramas and posadas are so much fun, there isn’t a danger anytime soon of losing this part of the Mexican culture. We aren’t sure we can put novenas in that category, but certainly if our neighborhood is any indication, novenas are also alive and well. Every night, in someone’s garage or living room, groups of (mostly) ladies are gathering, singing, praying and visiting in anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Christ.
Another word we learned during our posada evening was villancico, which is roughly equivalent to a carol. The original meaning of the word has to do with original songs and poems created from the 15th to the 18th Century in Spain and Portugal, but now the word pretty much means “Christmas Carol”. From what we have learned, villancicos are songs to have fun with, to be creative with and are vehicles for integrating local customs, cultures and languages with the traditions and stories of the Catholic Church. And did you know that Merida has an annual villancico contest? The local diocese of Yucatan, located in Itzmina, holds a contest every year. Participants come from all around the Yucatan Peninsula, including all the outlying towns like Peto, Motul and others. The contestants compete to see who has the most creative, funniest and lyrical songs, all of which must be related to the Christmas story. The finals are held this year on December 20 and 21, and when the contest is ended, they will release a CD with the songs of all the winners.
Dinner Is Served
After the piñata at our posada this year, a delicious dinner was served buffet-style, and the drinks continued to flow. The warmth and generosity of the evening was palpable to us. We were surrounded by the people we work with on a daily basis all year long (the staff from Yucatan Living and YES), as well as their children and spouses. The children were well-behaved in the way that we have come to expect and love about the children of Mexico… full of life and energy, with obvious respect and love for and from their parents. The twenty-somethings, similar in age to our own children, were also bright-eyed, happy and generous with their time, attention and conversation.
Around the dinner table at our posada, we saw a beautiful collection of now-familiar faces. Food, drinks, candy and piñata parts littered the table, as good-natured laughter and conversation abounded. The night was warm, the stars were out, the children were happy and the adults were relaxed. Despite the economic woes of many, here in Merida and in this group, we could all agree that we had a good-enough year. No one was making a fortune, but no one was hungry.
We eventually bid them all buenas noches, and as we were leaving, we realized that we too had once been weary travelers. Our friends in the Yucatan had accepted and welcomed us, and here we are, many years later, feeling very much like we belong.
And for that, we are grateful.
The meaning of the Advent Candles
Posada in New Mexico, run by a priest born in Yucatan
More about the Rama Rama tradition
Posadas in Cancun (Check out The Posada Blog Hop at the bottom of the page)