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Passing along culture with a homespun Posadas celebration

Alyssa Chavez, 9, center, and two friends prepare to lead a neighborhood Las Posadas procession in Santa Ana last Friday night, Dec. 21, 2012
Alyssa Chavez, 9, center, and two friends prepare to lead a neighborhood Las Posadas procession in Santa Ana last Friday night, Dec. 21, 2012
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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The tradition of Las Posadas, a reenactment of the legend of Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter on Christmas Eve, has been celebrated in Mexico and in other Catholic countries for hundreds of years. 

It’s celebrated in the U.S., too, often as part of church or school programs, or some other official production. But in Santa Ana, a group of neighbors - some of them immigrants, others Orange County natives who had never seen a neighborhood Posada until recently - has taken the tradition back to its homespun roots.

Each year in Santa Ana's Riverview neighborhood, residents get together for nine nights leading up to Christmas Eve to put on their own local Posadas procession, led by children dressed as Mary, Joseph, and an angel.

The neighborhood tradition started five years ago. Ana Gallardo, one of the organizers, remembers how her father and his contemporaries would wax nostalgic about Posadas celebrations back home. She and her sisters, born and raised in Orange County, had never witnessed a Posadas procession as it was done in Mexico. Neither had many of their contemporaries, let alone any of the neighborhood kids.

"What made us start it is actually our parents, and the older generations that actually came from Mexico," Gallardo said recently, as participants assembled at a neighbor's house before heading out. "They would gather together and thought, well, our children never experienced the posadas.” 

The Gallardos and some friends started drafting neighbors to participate, and a tradition was born. The Riverview Posadas start each year on Dec. 16 and run through Christmas Eve. Every night, participants gather at someone’s house, where children who volunteer to play one of the biblical characters gets bundled into a robe, or a veil, or angel wings and a halo.

The group recites the Rosary and practices singing, then they light candles and head out into the neighborhood, singing traditional carols. In the Posada tradition, Mary and Joseph knock on innkeepers’ doors seeking a place to stay for the night and are turned away, until one innkeeper agrees to let them stay in the stable. Neighbors play innkeepers, opening the door as the children and the rest of the procession ask them for shelter in a song.

Eventually, after the candlelit procession has wound its way around the neighborhood, they arrive at a final door and this time, the “innkeeper” says yes. Then, the crowd heads inside to to celebrate.

It's fun for the kids. And for parents, it's an important way of preserving their culture for their children, who in some cases are third-generation Americans. 

“We realized that we had a lot of kids in the neighborhood...and we just needed to pass on our culture and our religion," said Patricia Chavez, whose nine-year-old daughter played Mary one recent night. "Again, our kids are forgetting our story, and this is a part of who we are.”  

Want to hear what a neighborhood Posadas celebration sounds like? Click on the audio at left for the story.