The tourist office, under the archways in the main plaza, was open when I arrived in the small colonial town of Zacatlán de las Manzanas, two hours east of Mexico City. The plaza, anchored by the 16th century ex Convento de San Franciso, was aglow in silvery fog that foreshadowed the magical time I was to spend. I had been told that Zacatlán celebrated traditional Mexican Christmas Posadas, the symbolic journey of the Holy Family from Nazareth to Bethlehem seeking shelter, and I wanted to join in this nine-day festival.
The Posada (literally inn) tradition began in Mexico in 1587 when an Augustine order requested permission of Pope Sixto V to authorize a Novena, a nine-day Christmas celebration. The Augustinians, who used theater, drama and song in the process of conversion, not only wished to tell the story leading to Christ’s birth, but wanted to supercede the Aztecs’ twenty-day annual December festival dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, their war god.
The plaza, anchored by the 16th century ex Convento de San Franciso, was aglow in silvery fog that foreshadowed the magical time I was to spend.
Today Posadas are often reduced to a single evening but historically it is a Novena celebrated daily from December 16th to the 24th, which of course is then followed by Christmas on the 25th. I came to Zacatlán to experience the Posadas as a Novena, the religious ritual in a provincial setting.
Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo, Director of Tourism, was seated behind her desk, wearing a soft, bluish-white, downy sweater, working at her laptop computer, when I entered. She instantly looked up, greeted me, invited me to sit down, and asked, “How can we help you?” I said, “Where should I go for Posadas?” She penciled an outline with directions where I could visit Posadas during the week, in the schools, the churches and also suggested Hospital San José. And in a gesture of good will, knowing that I was alone, she invited me to the Olvera Family Reunion-Posada on Christmas Eve. Zacatlán is a compact colonial town with a huge clock in the central plaza. Red tiled adobe buildings, windows framed with iron grills, and cobblestone streets give the visitor a feeling of history and tradition. I could walk to the Posadas that Mary Carmen suggested.
Hospital San José
Late that first afternoon I joined the Posadas at Hospital San José where children, warmly dressed in well-worn jackets and jeans, had gathered in the chapel. They looked as if they could be the children of the shepherds that were present at the first Christmas.
In the hospital chapel, I sat in the front pew next to a little girl whose rosy cheeks glowed through her dark skin. She sat quietly while her mottled brown-blue eyes carefully examined my camera.
The church was a cream colored white with purple drapes. The director, a petit nurse-nun dressed in white and wearing wire glasses, introduced me as a guest. She used the opportunity to remind the children to be on their best behavior so as to leave the visitor with a good opinion.
The service began. Children sang the rosary. The chapel was in the center of the hospital with a corridor encircling the chapel. We stood. Four children in the back of the church lifted a plank with an angel, Mary and Joseph on their shoulders. It was decorated with a green pine tree branch and Christmas ornaments. The procession came up the center aisle, turned right and then began a journey around the outer corridor of the inner chapel. The choir and students followed Joseph and Mary and made periodic stops, as did the Biblical Holy Family when looking for a place to rest in Bethlehem. The children continued singing the rosary: Hail Mary’s and the Our Father.
At each stop, the Holy Family asked for shelter and was denied. Finally, after a full circuit, in the hospital, the Holy Family found rest, and the nun dressed in white passed out gifts: oranges, sugar cane, jicama, peanuts and other treats.
At each stop, the Holy Family asked for shelter and was denied. Finally, after a full circuit, in the hospital, the Holy Family found rest, and the nun dressed in white passed out gifts: oranges, sugar cane, jicama, peanuts and other treats. Young children marveled at their good fortune. I was surprised to see such pleasure from what I would have deemed modest.
Church of St. Francis
The next day at the Church of St. Francis, the largest in town, I encountered a different expression of the Posada. After we entered the church, the doors were closed. The rosary was not sung but a number of journeys were made around the inside of the church, with young men carrying statues of the Holy Family. We stopped at the various niches as if seeking an inn.
When the procession rested, a verse of the traditional Posada Song was sung. The Posada Song consists of two alternating choruses. First, the Holy Family requests shelter, then there is a response, “This is no inn. Continue on your way. I will not open. You could be thieves.” Back and forth, there is a request and a denial. Then it is revealed, the chorus sings, “The queen of heaven is asking for shelter. It is Joseph and Mary, his beloved spouse, who stand at your doors and seek lodging in your house.” The climax follows, “Let the doors be thrown open, let the drapes be drawn, for the Queen of Heaven has come to rest.”
School: Juana de Arca, Atexna
But it was on the road to El Refugio, a holistic cabin and campground enclave, where I found the most memorable procession. Here was simplicity, faith and tradition among grammar school children reenacting the Holy Family’s journey and their quest for shelter.
Here was simplicity, faith and tradition among grammar school children reenacting the Holy Family’s journey and their quest for shelter.
As I turned off the highway onto the rutted dirt road at Atexna, children had just left a solitary church and had just started their trek up the road to their primary school. I quickly parked and asked the teacher, Guillermina Juarez Martinez, if I might join the pilgrims. She was happy to welcome me.
Joseph dressed in green and gold, Mary wore blue, and Jesus’ godmother looked angelic in white. Angels, shepherds, wise men, parents and teachers followed the Holy Family. Solemnly they hiked up the hill reenacting the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. I ran ahead and took pictures of the pilgrimage treading on the damp earth road framed with maguey cactus.
The procession arrived at the school. A number of students entered, but the Holy Family, angels and shepherds, stayed outside. I was inside with my camera. The Posada Song was sung with the alternating choruses. The door was opened, the Holy Family entered, and students gathered in front of the manger. Joseph in green and gold stood on the right, and Mary with her light blue cape stood on the left, while the godmother, seated in the center, rocked Baby Jesus.
Guillermina Juarez Martinez kneeled and kissed the Baby Jesus. Everyone, pupils and teachers followed her example. Then small gifts were distributed and hot punch was served.
I enjoyed the pageantry, the processions, the rituals, and the songs. But what I had not realized was that I was yet to experience the love and the essence of the Christmas message.
Olvera Family Reunion-Posada
Mary Carmen had invited me to the Olvera Family Reunion-Posada. The party was at 7 p. m. Christmas Eve. I said, “Seven or after seven?” I didn’t want to be the first to arrive, especially at a family gathering of over 80 relatives. Mary Carmen said, “A partir de las siete.” (Any time after 7.)
I meant to arrive about 7:30 but I got lost. In the dark I couldn’t find the turnoff to the family homestead, and I knew I was within yards. But in the dark, along the road, the Grand Marquis’ headlights made every shrub bristle as if it were the sign of an entryway. Luckily, there was a nearby restaurant getting ready for a Christmas Eve Party and the owner was cordial and told me precisely where to turn.
I arrived at 8 just in time to join the outdoor chorus singing the Posada Song asking for shelter. When the doors opened I entered into a grand multi-generational family reunion and celebration.
Here I found more than the Christmas Posada, the Holy Family pilgrim tradition and a religious service.
Señor Olvera, Mary Carmen’s father, 83, and family patriarch, dressed in a suit and tie and wearing a short overcoat and a brown beret, spoke to his family. He embraced his wife Julita, dressed in a red coat, and gave thanksgivings for their blessings, and family prayers for those present and absent. Testimonials were spoken for the family’s happiness. One by one adult children hugged their parents. There was a gift exchange, a grand feast (with 8 daughters, food was abundant), toasts (even Viva California!), and dancing to salsa, marimba, rock ‘n roll, waltz, fox trot and swing.
We danced together, in a group, in a line, in a circle, in the center of the circle (nudged forward for an impromptu jig, or whirl). There was a call for “Los Calvos”, the bald guys, only two of us, the other being Eduardo, a son-in-law from Aguacaliente, where cock fighting is the annual attraction at the San Marcos Fair, so Eduardo and I pantomimed our interpretation of a two strutting cocks to cheers and applause.
Then singing, Mary Carmen led, followed by nearly every guest, some reluctant, needing encouragement, some with good voices like Mary Carmen, some frogs like myself who sang El Rey, but I had to pull Mary Carmen up with me as I was uncertain of all the lyrics, so we ended up a duet.
Husbands brought tears, pure streams of joy to their wives, as they sang love ballads, with words like, “My life would be nothing without you, you are my total love, my source, my reason for being,” while directing a fixed gaze, eye to eye with the wife.
There were other songs and recitations, humorous, or just favorites, more toasts, more dancing, a total spectacle of a loving, endearing, supporting, joyful family, whose patriarch’s favorite response to, “Como está?” (How are you?) is, “Yo soy agradecido de haber nacido.” (I’m grateful for having been born.)
La Piñata and a Funeral
I drove home alert, not tired at 3 a.m. Mary Carmen told me to join the family at noon for the children’s Christmas Piñata Fiesta. Afterwards, she said, we would join her nephew, his wife and daughter at La Trucha (The Trout) Restaurant for Christmas dinner.
When I arrived, plans had changed. We would be going to a funeral at 2 p.m. An elderly aunt died Christmas Eve and in Mexico burial is the next day. It seemed ironic. During Day of the Dead in San Miguel de Allende, I witnessed a wedding, and here in Zacatlán, on Christmas Day, I would be present at a funeral.
At noon, the children took turns, blindfolded (a symbol that the only guide is faith), and smacked the piñata. It was a clay pot covered with a 7-pointed star decorated in brilliant red, blue, orange, green, gold, silver, purple and white with paper streamers, which symbolized the Seven Deadly Sins. When it broke, treats gushed out. Children gathered up the traditional gifts: sweet potatoes, jicama, sugar cane, peanuts, oranges, a few small toys, balls and Spiderman figures, caramels and hard candy.
After the piñata, the festivities quieted. We still had a funeral and Christmas dinner to attend.
The sun was out. I was now part of Mary Carmen’s family and we walked up the hill to the original homestead, which was being used for storage. I no longer thought of the fog. Here on a hill outside Zacatlán the weather was warm and the sky crystal blue. Children were taking turns on a swing. The homestead was built L shaped and I photographed the flowers. I took nine photos, all different.
We traveled back to Zacatlán for the 2 p.m. funeral. I dropped Mary Carmen and her nephew, wife and child in front of the church, and then continued, looking for a parking place.
The funeral was short. But the church overflowed. In a small town, everyone is related. The casket, carried by 6 men, was placed in a funeral limousine and an entourage followed the slow-moving hearse to the cemetery. It was only a few blocks distant. The aunt was laid to rest on Christmas Day.
We backtracked past the Olvera homestead, drove to Jicolapa, a small village outside Zacatlán, and then into the quiet green pine forest and onto a dirt road that lead to mountain streams, a trout farm and a restaurant. We had been delayed. We were the last guests to arrive at La Trucha.
I felt as if I had returned home to northern Colorado and had just driven up the Poudre Valley River Canyon.
We selected our trout direct from the pond. Shortly, dinner, wrapped and baked in tinfoil with herbs, was served. We toasted, clinking bottles of cold beer. We were in a simple wood-framed building in the pine forest next to a stream with turkeys wandering about.
Our dining room was more like a giant tree house than a restaurant. It was modest, rustic, and appropriate for Christmas. Christ had been born in a manger.