Imagine wandering late at night through the dark, trying to find a place for your family to sleep and no one has any room.
If that scenario isn’t bad enough, now imagine one of you is pregnant and riding a donkey.
This is a night you will long remember, no?
Every year, many Mexican and Latin American families do just that when they celebrate posadas, re-enacting Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem on the night Jesus was born.
Posadas, which traditionally is a multi-day celebration leading up to Christmas Eve, starts Dec. 16 and runs through Dec. 23. It is a family celebration with music, marching, singing, food, piñatas and children playing the roles of the Holy Family.
"It is an amazing experience," explains Father Bruce Wellems, pastor at Holy Cross/Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, 4541 S. Wood St. in Chicago, who leads many nights of posadas marches every year.
In Wellems’ Back of the Yards neighborhood on the city’s South Side, the procession draws a huge crowd. Each night, children lead the crowd, playing the roles of Mary and Joseph in colorful homemade costumes. Sometimes, there’s even a donkey walking with them.
They wind through the streets and stop at houses chosen because the family has been dealing with illness or some other issue common to this low-income neighborhood.
"When the couple reaches the door of a neighborhood house, a chorus of singing begins between those outside, and the innkeepers, standing just inside," Wellems says. "Those outside sing: ‘In the name of Heaven, we ask you for a place at your inn.’ And the response echoes from inside: ‘We have no place here, go on your way.’ "
Mary and Joseph are turned away at several stops. After each, Wellems leads a prayer for the family inside the house and for the problem they have been dealing with.
"We bless the mothers who have had babies recently. We pray for victims of HIV/AIDS, for elementary students, for parents who are separated, for those without rights."
Finally, Mary and Joseph arrive at the last stop—usually the parish hall. The songs are sung one last time because this time the innkeepers invite Mary, Joseph and everyone in for a party.
There is traditional Mexican food, music and festivities. Hot cups of atole, a cornmeal drink flavored with strawberry or chocolate, are served, along with pan dulce, sweet bread, and sometimes, tamales.
After the food comes the papier-mache piñata.
"The children use a large stick to try to break open the piñata, which represents the seven deadly sins," Wellems explains. "Eventually, it is broken, evil is destroyed, and candy, representing goodness, falls out for the children to grab."
The posadas celebration, Wellems says, is about the difficult journey of one family. But it is also about how all our journeys are not easy. So it serves as a bridge for different cultures. "Our Anglo world has a tough time grasping the Latin experience of family, the role of the mother and why Mary is such a key figure," Wellems says. "But this procession gives people a better understanding."
Posadas celebrations are held at various Hispanic churches in the area. The Holy Cross processions are held each weeknight at 6 p.m. from Dec. 16 to 23. For more information, call the parish office at (773) 376-3900.