Today is the official beginning of Las Posadas in Mexico and the US Southwest, although actual timing may vary. The 16th of December is 9 days before Christmas, a novena that can represent numerous things – including 9 days symbolizing 9 months of Mary’s pregnancy. La Posada is Spanish for “lodging” and is used in the plural because the celebration often involves activities on several days, or because it involves visiting numerous places that are potential lodgings.
The classic Las Posadas that I am familiar with from New Mexico and northern Mexico involves a candlelit procession of townspeople from designated house to house led by a young couple dressed as Mary and Joseph (often with Mary on a burro). At each house the couple sings a song which is responded to by the homeowner. There are many variants, of course. This is a simple sample:
En nombre del cielo
Os pido posada
Pues no puede andar
Mi esposa amada
In the name of heaven
I request you grant us shelter
Given that she cannot walk
She my beloved wife]
Aquí no es mesón
Yo no puedo abrir
No sea algún tunante
This is not an Inn
Please continue ahead
I can not open
Don’t be a villain]
The procession continues from house to house with different answers from inside, until eventually a designated host lets Mary and Joseph in and there is a re-enactment of the Nativity scene with food and drink laid out for the crowd.
In Santa Fe, where I last attended Las Posadas about 25 years ago, the event is staged in the main plaza. Instead of going from house to house, Mary and Joseph go to the four sides of the square. At each side a devil appears at a top balcony and turns the couple away. The procession then veers off the square to a Nativity. As the couple and crowd journey around the square carrying candles, the crowd sings Spanish carols which continue at the Nativity.
Las Posadas has been recorded as a tradition in Mexico for about 400 years, probably rooted in European traditions of re-enacting significant gospel events for a largely illiterate population who had only vague ideas about what Christian events, especially Christmas and Easter, represented (not helped by the fact that the Bible and the mass were available only in Latin, and congregations were actively dissuaded from reading the Bible).
In Mexico, the Aztec winter solstice festival had traditionally been observed from December 7 to December 26. According to the Aztec calendar, their most important deity, the sun god Huitzilopochtli, was born during the month of December (panquetzaliztli). The parallel in time between this indigenous celebration and the Christmas celebration lent itself to a merging of the two traditions. In 1586, Friar Diego de Soria obtained a papal bull from Pope Sixtus V, stating that a Christmas Mass (misa de Aguinaldo), be observed as novenas on the nine days preceding Christmas Day throughout Mexico.
Although Las Posadas is a distinctly Mexican tradition it has analogs in various parts of the Spanish Diaspora. In the Philippines the Posadas tradition is represented by the Panunulúyan pageant. Sometimes it is performed right before the Misa de Gallo (Midnight Mass), or on each of the nine nights. Mary and Joseph sing lines requesting for accommodation and the lines of the potential “innkeepers” may be sung or spoken. Usually the lyrics are not in Spanish but in one of the local languages, such as Tagalog. There was also a Las Posadas tradition in Nicaragua which older generations remember, but for unclear reasons it had died out by the 1960s.
Cuba has a vaguely similar celebration at this time of year called Parrandas (though Parrandas has more of a Carnival atmosphere). The tradition began in the 19th century when Father Francisco Vigil de Quiñones, the priest of the Grand Cathedral of Remedios, in order to get the people to come to midnight masses the week before Christmas had the idea to put together groups of children and provide them with jars, plates and spoons so they could run around the village making noise and singing verses. The idea persisted over the years and gained in complexity so that it is now a street parade and festival.
Biscochitos are common festival food for Las Posadas in New Mexico, and you can find my recipe here – http://www.bookofdaystales.com/san-lorenzo/ . Let me talk about empanaditas instead. Some empanaditas are just miniature versions of empanadas, with the same savory fillings, but some are made with sweet fillings – empanaditas dulces. Empanaditas dulces make excellent party food at Christmas. You can use pretty much any sweet filling that you want. Fruit jams are very common. I usually bake my savory empanadas in the Argentine fashion, but I fry my sweet empanaditas. Being truly eclectic, at this time of year I use mincemeat for a filling.
3 cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
8 oz/225gm (2 sticks) butter, cut into 16 pieces
2 eggs, beaten
2 tbsp cold water
oil (for frying)
Mix the flour, sugar, and a pinch of salt in a mixing bowl or food processor.
Add the butter, eggs and water and mix until a clumpy dough forms.
Remove the dough from the bowl or processor and knead it for a few minutes.
Divide the dough into 2 balls, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Roll out the dough into a thin sheet and cut out round disc shapes for the empanaditas. I usually use a drinking glass as a cutter.
Place a little filling in the center of each circle. Do not use too much or they will leak when fried. Fold over the circle to form a semi-circle. Press down the edges firmly so that there are no holes, and crimp the edges with a fork.
Heat oil for shallow frying in a wide skillet to 350°F. Fry the empanaditas in small batches, first on one side, then flipping them with a spatula when the underside is golden. When cooked on both sides, remove with a slotted spoon and drain on wire racks. While still warm, sprinkle with powdered sugar.
I prefer to serve them warm with whipped cream.