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December 10, 2010
Our holiday rituals and traditions evoke memories—memories that link us to friends, to family, to our cultures of origin, to our most profound sense of who we are.
My early memories from growing up in San Antonio include church Christmas pageants and huge multi-generational parties with extended family. The dominant culture’s snowy images of a white Christmas, winter wonderlands, ice skating and Ebenezer Scrooge in London seemed odd to a child growing up in south Texas. My church always had an outdoor live nativity scene and sometimes it was chilly enough to require a light jacket under my shepherd’s costume.
Since my youth I have spent the holidays in many parts of the United States and even in foreign countries. (There is nothing quite like seeing Santa, reindeer, and fake snow in Thailand!) But regardless of religious background or culture, for those of us who have grown up with an end-of-year holiday tradition, the emotional tug is always there.
Traditions and rituals touch something very deep. The stories we hear and repeat become an essential part our story. They remind us of our need for one another, of the importance of compassion, of the centrality of hope, of our deep longing for peace.
One of the old traditions practiced in the San Antonio of my youth and across the Southwest is the Mexican custom of “Las Posadas.” In Spanish a “posada” is a place of lodging, a resting place, a place of shelter on a journey. This tradition, based on the biblical account of Mary and Joseph having to stay in a stable because there was no room in the inn, has special resonance for us today.
The practice of Las Posadas began almost five hundred years ago in colonial Mexico. A small group of people, some dressed as Mary and Joseph and carrying candles to light the way, go from house to house and sing songs asking for shelter. At each house they are turned away until, finally, someone lets them in. All of this is prearranged, of course. Then, in a true expression of Mexican culture, the people celebrate with music, dancing, lots of food, and a piñata. In some villages and neighborhoods, there is a different procession and a different stopping point each night for nine days, beginning December 16 and ending Christmas Eve.
This year—a year in which our nation is torn by anti-immigrant sentiment, a year in which I found myself protesting and even being arrested and jailed for opposing what I believe are racist anti-immigrant laws—the religious lessons of Las Posadas are even more striking. In a year that saw a record number of migrants die in our deserts, a story about helpless people being turned away profoundly touches my heart.
More importantly, like all good traditions, the lessons of Las Posadas go far beyond public policy debates. Each one of us, at some time in our lives, has been Mary or Joseph. Think of a time you needed shelter—physical or, more likely, emotional. Think of a time you needed compassion, needed someone simply to take you in and give you a place that was safe.
Recall, too, all the times you have been the person who turned away “Mary” or “Joseph.” I shudder to remember the many times I was too preoccupied, too insensitive, too busy, too self absorbed to offer the simple kindness of a sympathetic ear, a cup of tea, a little emotional shelter.
Recall, too, all the times you have been the kind-hearted innkeeper. Think of the times you were there, really there, for a child, a partner, a friend, even a stranger. Think of how precious those times were. When we allow the love that lives in our hearts to express itself, we are a blessing to those around us and a blessing to ourselves.
One of the great blessings of life in our Unitarian Universalist congregations is that here we learn to give and receive posada. We are there for one another. Together, we spread the warmth of compassion.
In this busy holiday time, the powerful religious lessons of Las Posadas transcend cultural boundaries. May we take time to see the need around us. May we open our hearts. May we give and receive shelter. Every act of kindness is offering a posada.
May this be a time rich in blessings and filled with joy.
A Spanish-language version of Rev. Morales’ holiday message is available.
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Last updated on Friday, December 17, 2010.
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