SAN ANTONIO, Texas – As most Texans of Mexican-descent originating on the banks of the lower Rio Grande, I grew up surrounded by symbols of faith.
During the 1950s-60s, kids were very much a part of special religious celebrations. As children, we never questioned our parents as to the reason why we had to do certain things during these events. We just did it because we loved the excitement of being with family and barrio friends. Without even knowing it, the experience taught us to preserve our family traditions for future generations.
Included were pre-Christmas season events. For example, we were encouraged to give something up for Lent and older kids were expected to fast just as the adults did. During Dia de los Santos (All Saints Day), we visited the camposanto (cemetery) to pray at the grave sites of our dearly departed. I vividly recall that it was not a short visit. Rather, it normally lasted anywhere from a couple of hours to most of the day. It all depended on the number of graves we visited. Also, I remember that sugar cane vendors were usually parked by the entrance gates. So, our parents bought each of us a short length of caña de azucar as a special sweet treat.
All of these year-round religious celebrations pointed to the Christmas season, the subject of this article. Of particular attention this time of year is the “Tamalada” family gathering; one of its dearest symbols. The Tamalada at our house was packed with constant activity with friends and family coming in and out of our house taking part in the feast. Most of all, it was a time of joy, togetherness, and happiness. Thankfully, this particular special celebration still survives. Such get-togethers are observed regardless of how far Mexican-descent families have relocated from South Texas and the U.S. Mexico border area. Plus, even though its strength continues to be more solid in middle class and lower income Mexican-descent families, a significant number of non-Hispanic families have adopted the beautiful tradition.
Las Posadas (the re-enactment of the Gospel of Luke 2:1-9) was another distinctive religious celebration very popular when I was a child in our Barrio Azteca in Laredo, Texas. Our group’s journey took place within a two-block part of Hidalgo St. by Zacate Creek. El Azteca had dozens of such simultaneous celebrations. The fact is that other barrios (neighborhoods) in Laredo participated, and that Laredo is just one city. So, the thousands of these collective, simultaneous gatherings involved hundreds of thousands of people throughout South Texas, West Texas, and the Southwest. Adding celebrants in Mexico, it’s the Gospel of Luke re-enacted with a cast of millions; all using the same script. Indeed, it’s a thing of beauty.
The festivities began on December 16th. The neighbors met at a pre-arranged time and location. Then, carrying small candles to light the way, the group sang Christmas songs in Spanish as they walked to the first house (inn). As they stopped in front of the house, a volunteer playing the role of Joseph would knock on the door. However, the door would not be opened until we finished singing. It was then that the hosts would welcome Joseph and Mary and the congregation to stay and join them in prayer. At the conclusion of the prayer (usually The Rosary) food was served. The process was repeated the next evening until Christmas Eve (December 24th). This last stop included more substantial refreshments and the young ones got to break open a piñata.
It was also during that time of growing up that we often asked Mother to compare our Las Posadas celebrations with those she experienced when she was a child in San Ygnacio, Texas. She would say that not much had changed. As with our own experiences, the aroma of special meal preparation was customary throughout the season. The entire house was rich with scents of tamales, caldo, barbacoa, spicy menudo, empanadas, buñuelos, cookies, cinnamon, and chocolate. Other than home-made wreaths, bows, and ribbons on the front door, homes were decorated inside (not outside). Every home had a special place in the front room for the Nativity. It was the center of attention.
She would say that our ancestors in South Texas spent much of Christmas Day with family and friends and attending church-related activities. The most important difference is that there was no Christmas tree or Santa Claus. In other words, Christmas Day was not necessarily a day of giving and receiving gifts as the holy day is known for today.
On the morning of January 6, El Dia de los Tres Reyes, (Three Kings Day), families attended Mass celebrating the Epiphany. Children were told that since they had been good kids during the year, Los Reyes Magos had left each child a gift and a decorated paper or cloth bag containing hard candy, pecan pralines, mixed nuts, and dried fruit. Most gifts were handmade, since store-bought gifts were rare. Whatever gift was received was cherished throughout the New Year.
Indeed, Las Posadas is the type of ceremony that can’t deviate much from its original intent. While similar countdowns to Christmas Day are also celebrated in Europe, Las Posadas is unique to America. The reason is that Roman Catholic priests used the story of the birth of the child Jesus as a way to teach Native Americans about Jesus.
So thoroughly have Southwest Mexican-descent (Native Americans) adopted the Christmas story that it’s hard to find another example around the globe that tops their deep sense of faith. Sadly, many modern-day Mexican-descent youngsters forget their roots a little more each generation just because their parents don’t emphasize the traditions enough.
Lastly, the families in our Barrio Azteca neighborhood were rich in spirit. Although they were poor, their faith kept them hoping for better days ahead. Sadly, today we live in a period of materialism and excess consumption. Therefore, children don’t know that real value is not in the latest electronic gadget or toy, but in family traditions. Family customs don’t cost any money and last a lifetime. More important, they will likely be the most treasured gifts children will possess once they reach adulthood and have kids of their own.
Las Posadas is an eternal treasure. Pass the tradition on to the next generation. There’s no better time to do that than right now. Feliz Navidad 2014 y Dia de los Tres Magos 2015 (Merry Christmas 2014 and Happy Three Kings’ Day 2015)!
Coincidentally, Hanukah 2014 is celebrated at the same time. So Happy Hanukah in honor of our Jewish heritage.
José Antonio “Joe” López was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and is a USAF Veteran. He now lives in Universal City, Texas. He is the author of three books: “The Last Knight (Don Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara Uribe, A Texas Hero,”, “Nights of Wailing, Days of Pain (Life in 1920s South Texas)”, and “The First Texas Independence, 1813”. Lopez is also the founder of the Tejano Learning Center, LLC, and www.tejanosunidos.org, a web site dedicated to Spanish Mexican people and events in U.S. history that are mostly overlooked in mainstream history books.