THE SKY FLARED WITH A BLOOD-RED sunset and then went black as I drove north from Santa Fe on a cold December night last year. I was on my way to Santa Cruz, one of New Mexico’s oldest villas, as the principal towns of colonial New Mexico were known, to see Las Posadas, a Christmas tradition I’ve known about for much of my life but have experienced only rarely. Racing past the casinos along Highway 285 in the gathering gloom, blinded by the flashing neon signs beckoning me toward diversions that promised immediate material rewards, I anticipated a traditional Christmas time celebration with old-world Spanish and Mexican trappings. Perhaps there would be a burro carrying the Virgin Mary dressed in a peasant dress, bowing humbly beneath a hand-woven rebozo. This was, after all, how I remembered the scene at the Santuario de Chimayó the last time I witnessed Las Posadas, some 10 years back, when my niece played the part of Mary and my cousin was Joseph.

I assumed that the event would begin at the Catholic church in Santa Cruz, a massive adobe edifice completed in 1748 that resonates with history and the collective voices of centuries of worshippers. But when I pulled into the parking lot of the church, there was not a soul in sight, and nary a farolito decorated the courtyard walls. Did I have the wrong night?

Driving around to the back of the church, I was relieved to find many vehicles jammed into the dirt parking area, and more filing in by the second. I jockeyed my way into the fray and squeezed in between two giant trucks with tires nearly as tall as my Prius. At last I had found my way to the Las Posadas celebration, I thought. But the people streaming from their cars were not going to the church, but to the auditorium nearby. I followed the train of moms and dads and kids, all of them anxious to get inside.

A packed crowd filled folding chairs and bleachers, all eyes toward the well-lit stage flanked by Father Blanc, the senior priest from Santa Cruz, who sat at a piano. He wore a red Santa hat lettered with i’ve been good. Camera flashes flooded the dark room when the cast emerged from the wings—dozens of children dressed as donkeys and sheep and pigs, magi, and shepherds—for their annual Christmas play. But where is the traditional Las Posadas procession? I wondered, even as I was captivated by the charm of the play.

After the children finished sputtering through their lines, I asked around and learned, eventually, that Las Posadas would take place after the play, at a restaurant in neighboring Española. So I raced back to the parking area, extricated my car from between the monster trucks, and made my way to Joe B’s, a restaurant with rustic décor that serves up some of the best northern New Mexican food in the decidedly nontraditional town of Española.

Inside, there was no sign of an impending Las Posadas procession—although a crowd was gathering and long tables held steaming pans of red chile enchiladas, piles of tamales, and pots of posole and beans. Inside the main entrance, an inflated plastic archway in red-and-white candy cane bore a Merry Christmas banner; an inflated Frosty the Snowman, holiday-dressed Mickey and Minnie, and Santa’s elves completed the tableau. A small sign invited guests to attend Las Posadas at 6 p.m., but even though it was past 7, no sign of a burro. When I asked, the restaurant owner assured me, “Mary and Joseph will be here soon.”

I was puzzled, but I learned long ago to go with the flow when attending cultural events in New Mexico. It’s an attitude that has served me well in many settings, from car shows to pueblo and Matachines dances to small-town fiestas, so I sat back and waited for the reenactment of a celebration that has long, deep roots.

This was the second night of the Santa Cruz parish’s nine-day Las Posadas celebration, which would take place at a different venue each night. The tradition originated in Spain long ago, but it became much more popular in Mexico, where Church leaders used it to teach the Gospel of the Nativity to indigenous people. It helped that Christmas happened to coincide with the nine-day season of ancient Aztec festivities for the birth of the war god, Huitzilopochtli. Catholic missionaries transmuted the Aztec celebrations into Las Posadas, the buildup to the birth of Christ. The nine days—December 16–24—are said to represent the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy, and during them a local couple reenacts Mary and Joseph’s peregrinations as they go door to door, seeking lodging. (The duration may also relate to the Catholic tradition of the novena, or nine days of prayer, used in many contexts in the Church.)

The details of Las Posadas vary from place to place in Latin America and New Mexico, but they all focus on the themes of Mary and Joseph’s difficult journey and of Jesus’ humble origins. Usually in Las Posadas (which means “the lodgings”), Mary and Joseph go from door to door in the community, asking for accommodation. The couple is turned down repeatedly until finally a host family allows them to enter, and a celebration ensues.

None of this historical context was apparent as I waited in the warmth of Joe B’s with all the inflated cartoon characters. Eventually, though, the crowd stilled to silence and turned toward the entrance, where Mary and Joseph appeared, a young boy and girl dressed in historic Middle Eastern attire. They passed beneath the Merry Christmas arch, past the waving elves and ho-hoing Santa, and waited by the entrance. In the center of the room a group of musicians—five guitarists, a violinist, and a harmonica player—was gathered. The crowd drew close and began singing, in Spanish, what is perhaps the most traditional and universal Las Posadas song, “Pidiendo Posada.” This ageless verse puts to music a back-and-forth conversation as Mary and Joseph ask for lodging and the respondents deny them and send them on their way. It’s not until the final verse that the lyrics proclaim that the couple is formally granted entry and respite from their weary journey.

At this point, the Mary and Joseph in Joe B’s moved into the center of the room and a long Las Posadas celebration began, following a program written and handed out by Sister Angie from the Santa Cruz church. The program began with alternating readings from the Gospel of Luke—nine in total—and songs recalling events surrounding Jesus’ birth. The music, all sung in Spanish, not only told the story but also carried an unmistakable sentiment of joy and celebration. There followed a long series of prayers (including a novena for the infant Jesus, an act of contrition, a petition, and a recital of nine Hail Marys) interspersed with tra- ditional Las Posadas songs, concluding with another one familiar throughout the Spanish-speaking world, “Vamos Todos a Belén.”

The youthful Mary and Joseph were looking a bit wilted when finally the formalities ended and the feasting began. Old friends gathered together and shared in the plenty, provided free of charge by Joe B’s—but the pause in the music was brief. The inspired musicians took up their instruments and the singing resumed, now with a less traditional repertoire that included an occasional vals (waltz) or a polka, which led to lively dancing. The revelry provided a release after the long interval of focused, devout prayer and formal singing. Religiosity was in balance with the spirit of Christmas embodied by Mickey and Minnie and Santa.

As I was leaving, I thanked Sister Angie for her efforts in leading the event. She smiled and said, “Oh, it’s so wonderful like this, each night of Las Posadas. Come to another! By the last night, we just want it to go on and on. We really form a community that way—it’s a very good preparation for Christmas.”

The scene was decidedly different at the Las Posadas in Santa Fe. There the event took place, as has been the tradition for many years, in the old Plaza downtown, beginning at the Palace of the Governors. In the historic building, I joined with those who would lead the procession, including Mary and Joseph and the musicians. To my surprise, many of the same people who partook in Las Posadas in Española were there. I saw Sister Angie, who told me that the Santa Cruz group had been leading Las Posadas in Santa Fe for 30 years. They had come, as usual, by bus, bringing with them their instruments and their songs, although the Joseph and Mary figures were in their teens.

The atmosphere was vibrating with excitement as we prepared to go out before the throngs on the Plaza, which was ablaze with Christmas lights and farolitos. (Yes, here in northern New Mexico they’re farolitos, not luminarias.) Hundreds of people huddling in the cold watched us begin our circumambulation, clockwise, past glittering storefronts. Most of the people held lighted candles, adding to the radiance of the Plaza. The musicians followed, singing from the same canon of traditional songs, again in Spanish.

Instead of proceeding from house to house, seeking lodging, the entourage walked along in front of the Plaza storefronts. They stopped from time to time to sing from the traditional Las Posadas ballad, asking for lodging. But here there was a different twist thrown in: As the entourage sang out its request for shelter, an imposing figure dressed as a devil confronted the procession. He shouted at Mary and Joseph, “Váyanse de aquí!” There’s no room for you, get out of here! The demon’s cries were met by jeers and hissing from the crowd, but Mary and Joseph moved on, accompanied by the retinue of musicians singing and playing their instruments.

Three separate rooftop demons harassed the entourage—and three times they were booed by the spirited crowd—before Mary and Joseph finally completed their circuit and found refuge in the courtyard of the Palace of the Governors. There, they gathered under a manger-like ramada adorned with Christmas lights while the musicians played and the crowd sipped hot chocolate and cider. Las Posadas here in Santa Fe was decidedly less formal than the deeply religious event in Española, but the crowd was no less convivial as they sang along with the time-honored tunes.

Determined to find a more traditional Las Posadas, I went a few nights later to an event in Córdova, a small town in the Sangre de Cristo foothills not far from Chimayó. In this part of New Mexico, Las Posadas take place each night in a different village in Holy Family parish—El Valle, Trampas, Ojo Sarco, Truchas, Córdova, Río Chiquito, and Cundiyó, and the Nuestra Señora del Carmen chapel in Chimayó—over successive nights, before concluding with the final procession (complete with the Mary on a donkey’s back) at the Santuario de Chimayó on December 22.

I arrived early to Córdova and found the place deserted, although the farolitos were lined up at the ready along the walls of the church courtyard. I waited in the December chill, stomping to keep warm and admiring a fat, nearly full moon rolling toward the horizon. After a time, a lone figure emerged from a house in the tight cluster of old adobes in this central part of the old village and ambled toward me. He regarded me quizzically—a lone stranger in the dark churchyard—but he was all warmth and friendliness when I told him of my purpose in being there. He explained that Las Posadas would be happening in a little while, then vanished back into the labyrinth of old adobes.

Soon another young man approached the church, and then a few women, one of whom greeted me, fumbled with keys, and opened the church door. Anxious to warm up, I followed her, but she said that it wasn’t time yet. She, the mayordomo of the church, was here to let the other women in. I watched them file into the small chapel (warmed by a small propane heater) and place upon tables pans of tortillas, beans, tamales, enchiladas—a train of delights that kept coming for the next 15 minutes as more women arrived.

Another half-hour passed before several young men came to light the candles and small bonfires (these are called luminarias hereabouts) in the courtyard. The adobe walls and gravestones of the churchyard began to flicker with soft light.

Finally, the mayordomo came back and opened the chapel and people from the community began to file in. Everyone arrived on foot from the surrounding village, in small groups, talking softly. Well lit and decorated with a Christmas tree and lights, the little church gave up its warmth.

The musicians were among the first to arrive. They unpacked their instruments and took positions just in the front of the church. Behind them rose the magnificent altar, carved and painted nearly 180 years ago by the renowned santero José Rafael Aragón. The musicians played softly—three guitarists and a bassist—while more people filed in. A car pulled up in front and from it emerged Father Julio González and his senior, the venerable Father Casimiro Roca, recently retired as parish priest after serving some 60 years in Chimayó. A palpable wave of respect rose in the group when the two curates entered and greeted the congregation, which had grown to about 25 people.

Father Julio welcomed us to Las Posadas with a blessing, then about half of the congregation, including the young Mary and Joseph, the musicians, and the priest, exited the church. Outside, beneath the still bright moon and within the light of the luminarias, the group sang the Las Posadas folk song, recounting the conversation between Mary and Joseph and the innkeepers. The tune was slightly different from that sung in Española and Santa Fe, but the lyrics the same. Again, when the final verse announced that the weary couple had found a receptive home, we reentered the church. Father Julio assumed his position at the head of the church, the musicians clustering just behind the altar rail. Father Julio led a full mass, punctuated with music led by the musicians and joined by everyone present, young and old.

I felt warmly embraced by the congregation as I sampled the delicious dishes from the local kitchens. One young man spoke to me passionately about how important Las Posadas was to him. “The way I see it,” he explained, “the Posadas drama was given to us by our ancestors to teach us many things, but I believe the two most important lessons are the value of humility and of offering service to those in need.”

“We all come together for this,” a young girl in the community added, “and we feel so close as a community. I remember having this feeling ever since I was a child—and it just builds and builds until the Misa del Gallo [Midnight Mass] at Christmas.”

After three nights of Las Posadas in three towns, I found myself amazed by the diversity of ways people celebrate this centuries-old ritual. None fit my fantasy of how Las Posadas should look, but each revealed the ways people have adapted the event to fit their own places and times so that they can continue to tell the story that reaffirms their faith.

As I huddled close to the stacked piñon fire in front of the Córdova church, gratefully wolfing spoonfuls of posole, I felt what is common to all the celebrations: a spirit of togetherness and of sharing food and music and prayer, all of it intended to generate warmth and light on the darkest and coldest nights of the year.


Throughout New Mexico, churches and parishes and all kinds of neighborhood associations and community groups organize Las Posadas events each year. The traditional timing for the events is December 16–24, but the dates vary from place to place. Check with local parishes and community calendars for dates and times.

Las Posadas in Santa Fe focuses on one night—December 14 this year—beginning at the Palace of the Governors. In Santa Cruz/Holy Cross Parish, Las Posadas will proceed from house to house starting December 15 and running through December 23 (leaving time for other celebrations on Christmas Eve).

The reenactment goes from village to village on successive nights from December 14 to 22 in Holy Family Parish, ending up at the Santuario de Chimayó on the final night.