Las posadas are a uniquely Mexican form of la novena de aguinaldos, the nine-day Catholic prayer cycle that leads up to Christmas. It starts on December 16.
It combines Christmas caroling, nativity plays, eating and drinking with a piñata party for the kids. The tradition also honors Huitzilopochtli, the national god of the Aztecs (Mexicas).
Just as Holy Week leads up to Easter, La Novena (the nine) leads up to Christmas.
La Novena reenacts Mary’s and Joseph’s nine-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Jesus was born.
The prayer cycle contemplates a different theme each day.
The posada tradition comes from pre-literate times when a lot of teaching was done through theatre. The roots of European theatre are Greco-Roman, but in the Medieval Period (roughly 500-1500), theatre was dominated by religious plays.
A posada is an inn. If you search the word in the Latin world, you’ll be shown a bunch of hotels and Airbnbs.
Las posadas are reenactments of Joseph and Mary looking for shelter on the night before Jesus was born. The community gathers in a candled procession and wanders the village looking for shelter. A couple may play the role of Mary and Joseph.
At a different home each night we sing “La Cancíon Para Pedir Posada” (the asking for shelter song). Folks outside ask for shelter. Folks inside say there is no room. This goes back and forth a few times until the host opens the door to allow the procession inside.
Inside it’s a party. There may be religious readings and a prayer on a different theme each night. There may be nativity reenactments. But basically, it’s a family or community party with food, drinks and a piñata filled with candy for the children. The party-goers provide everything. The host only provides the space.
Tamales are traditional posada food. Those are accompanied with ponche (punch) and atole, a hot corn drink. Atole is like egg nog in the way it is popular as a holiday drink on the fall and winter festivals Day of the Dead and Las Posadas. Atole is often drunk with chocolate.
Star piñatas are popular for posadas.
The Mexican posada tradition is mixed with traditional veneration of Huitzilopochtli, the supreme sun and war god, the national god of the Mexicas (Aztecas). At his festival around the winter solstice, guests gathered at feasts where they were given small corn figurines.
So the old is part of the new and this is a really important aspect of Mexican identity.