In churches and neighborhoods across St. Louis, many Latino parishioners gather before Christmas for Las Posadas, a 500-year-old practice that retells the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, where they sought shelter before Christ was born. For many, the celebrations that take place from Dec. 12 to Three Kings Day on Jan. 6 help keep religious, family and cultural traditions. Gustavo Valdez, a St. Louis resident, has celebrated them since he was a 9-year-old boy in Monterrey, Mexico.
"A very dear friend told me to explain posadas to an American person, you can just tell them it’s like Thanksgiving — but every weekend.
"Every weekend, after Dec. 12, we have a party to go to, to share food, basically. At the very beginning it is a celebration that was held at churches. And now it’s being held at churches here. But in Mexico it went into the neighborhoods, not with religious songs, but with other types of songs that reflect the journey of the pilgrimage of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus to come. They basically go door to door asking for a place to have the baby."
An overnight stay
"Posada is basically when you host somebody to stay overnight at home. Actually that’s also the name in many little towns to hotels. The song is very, very famous and basically it says, please let us stay here overnight because my wife and I have been walking from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and she’s pregnant. She’s about to give birth to this divine child and please let us stay here. Then, from inside the house there are people singing back, 'No, you can’t stay here. Go on, continue your journey. You can’t stay here.'
"Then you’re supposed to go to another house. So, you do like three, maybe four stops before getting a welcoming house. Then you keep going, and at the end you add this part, in which you explain to the people inside the house, 'Mary, is my wife and she’s the queen of the heaven … She’s with child, with this divine child. She’s queen of the heaven because she’s carrying Jesus.'
"Then the people inside the house [respond], 'Oh I’m so sorry, I haven’t recognized you. Please come in, this house welcomes you.'
"They open the door, and then they all sing together, 'We’re very, very happy to host you here because you’re going to have baby Jesus here and he’s the king of heaven and he’s just about to be born.'
"Part of the practice of these fiestas is to teach kids the faith. They hit a piñata also. This piñata originally had seven pikes. It could look like a star, and the story says that is the star of Bethlehem, the one that the wise men were following, which is officially the end of the celebration.
"But it has seven pikes, which are the seven deadly sins. So kids hit it, which means beat the sins. And inside, after beating the sins, you get the reward, which is candy.
A special party
"There are always private celebrations, at home with your family. And you might sing just from the backyard into the inside of your house to teach kinds how we celebrate this in Mexico. But here, you want to keep the culture going on, and we love fiestas. Posadas are so special because you cook also very specific cuisine like tamales, or menudo … or many, many other things that during Christmas are very, very popular — punch with fruit and sugar cane, tecojote (a seasonal Mexican fruit), guava, tamarind. Sometimes raisins.
"Most of the time after letting people into your house, you don’t go straight to the party. You all gather in the living room and pray the rosary, a whole rosary, which take I don’t know maybe 30, 45 minutes, which in kid time is like a month.
"People take it seriously sometimes. Sometimes they just skip the prayer and go straight to the party. I can’t deny that.
"But officially, and at the beginning, the idea is to gather the whole street, the neighborhood. If it’s a small town well maybe the whole town at a church or city hall or something like that and do this community based event."