While many EuroMericans celebrate Christmas on December 25, in Latin America the principal festivities take place on Christmas Eve, La Noche Buena, or the Good Night.
It begins with a sort of parade, called the Posada. Posada customs differ in different countries, and even among different tribes, but in the modified for US version, children go in front, carrying candles, followed by a young couple, preferably one with a wife who is visibly expecting, dressed as St. Joseph and Mary the mother of Jesus. Behind them are everybody else, with candles. Some hold aloft statues or portraits of the Virgen de Guadalupe, St. Joseph or other religious icons.
The parade walks along the street, singing the Posada songs, which are very long, here is just a bit:
En nombre del cielo
pues no puede andar
mi esposa amada.
No seas inhumano
(In the name of heaven
We ask for shelter
My beloved wife can’t go on
Don’t be inhumane)
When they reach a home participating in the posada (by pre-arrangement) they knock, and the residents sing another song, telling no, we have no room, go away, don’t bother us. But then those residents come out with lit candles and join the parade. After being refused by eight houses, the ninth house lets them in:
no los conocía.
¡Dichosa la casa
que alberga este día
a la virgen pura,
la hermosa María!
We know you
Happy the home that today shelters
The pure virgin, the beautiful Mary)
In song, the paraders thank them, everyone comes in, and are given little cakes, hot chocolate, barely sweet, with cinnamon and ground pungent chiles.
Like most Meso-American religious celebrations, the posada is not entirely a Spanish import, but also has roots in the traditional indigenous winter festivals.
After enjoying the treats and thanking the “innkeepers,” the paraders disperse to their own homes to begin the next phase of the Noche Buena celebration: Eating your weight in food.
There are tamales, leg of pig slow cooked for twelve hours in oven or pit, arroz y frijoles, tiny red potatoes boiled in oil and rolled in salt and pungent chiles, chimol, tomatillo and jalapeno salsa, chiles rellenos, several different kinds of mole, of course tortillas, and astonishingly, pan molde, which is Spanish for American white sponge bread. It is generally considered a holiday delicacy, and seldom eaten on any other occasion.
For sandwiches, explains a gentleman from Honduras. The pierna (leg) is delicious as it is served, but the best comes later when you have a sandwich with mustard and pan molde.
When I smell tamales, you know what memory it brings me? Of my mother, of course, when I was little, but also when I crossed, we were three days and three nights in the desert, and the migra caught us, he touches a jagged scar on his forehead, we had to start all over again, three days and three nights, and finally when we got to the other side, the people who took us in gave us tamales, the best food I ever had.
Only three days? That is not so bad. We were eight days, walking, and I had my sister to protect. We thought we would die, we did nothing but pray. But the Virgen was taking care of us, and we survived. We came to a house, we were almost dead, they had a big cooler of ice, and all I wanted to do was eat ice. The people came out, they said in the name of God come in and eat, and I could hardly speak, I said, my sister, please take care of her, I just want to eat ice.
Everyone has a crossing story, and everyone has family back home. Cellphones beep, and the room fills with the sounds of Tarasco, Garifuna, Mixteca, Lenca, Nahuatl, Quiche, as people call loved ones, or curse because the trunk lines are full. Here I have an extra card, Major Talk, they are better, take it. Try it on my phone. You should have called yesterday, tonight is impossible.
My wife, a diminuitive man from Oaxaca shows a framed photograph of a beautiful lady in traditional Mixteca costume, flanked by two little girls, my daughters, he kisses the picture, the love of my life, I adore her. But it is so dangerous for a lady to cross now, many problems, ugly things happen. He cries, and is immediately surrounded by comforters. We will pray to the Virgen that a way is found. Do not despair, slowly things are happening, in Venezuela, in Bolivia, it will also happen here in the north, and open a safe way for your family to come. They will not want you to be sad on Noche Buena. Here, eat pig.
The meal itself is preceded by prayers, led by the host. Usually everybody will speak, a lady explains to me, but when there are so many, the food would get cold. The host thanks God for the food, for his family,
When no one can possibly hold another bite (at least until sandwich time) it is midnight! Feliz Navidad!
Someone brings the figure of the Baby Jesus from the Nativity Scene on the mantel.
It is time to carry the Child Jesus! Holding the figure in her hands, an elder lady swings it back and forth gently, singing the traditional lullaby:
Duermete mi niño,
Duermete mi amor
The figure is passed around, and each person sings the lullaby, and kisses the child Jesus before passing it to the next person.
The younger generation call to each other, it is time to sing the Sapo Verde (green frog) to the Child Jesus!
When the child Jesus is placed in their hands, they sing the Sapo Verde
Happy Birthday to you!
Happy Bithday to you!
Happy Birthday dear Jesus!
Happy Birthday to you!
When everyone has cradled, kissed and sung to the child Jesus, presents are opened, and when all the new clothes have been modeled “Que se lo ponga! que se lo ponga!” and the floor is impassable with colored paper, toys, perfumes, new shoes, makeup kits, Xbox games and iPods, as if on cue, the entire company bursts into song again, to the tune of Sapo Verde, a second verse!
Ya queremos pastel
Ya queremos pastel
Aunque sea un pedacito
Ya queremos pastel!
(Now we want cake
Now we want cake
Even if it’s just a little piece (this line is sung with hands spread far apart)
Now we want cake!)
And cake becomes present – a huge birthday cake, decorated with St. Joseph, Mary, and the child Jesus, all made of sugar, and hotly argued and negotiated over by the children, as the smallest child has the honor of eating the child Jesus, and several claim on this one occasion, to be the smallest. When an amicable settlement is reached on the subject of consumption of the Holy Family, everyone says a silent prayer and blows out the candles at once and the cake is served.
Then the dancing begins. The Garifuna of Honduras and Belize are unique in that they are the only African people brought to the Americas who have retained their culture and language more or less intact through the centuries. An elder lady explains, the three gifts of Africa to Honduras, the Garifuna language, the music punta, and curly hair.
Dancing correctly to punta music involves moving the hips more rapidly than one would think humanly possible. Only the people from Honduras, even those who did not receive the gift of curly hair, can do it, but the others try. This is a tough room in which to plead the excuse of age, as a lady who may have been an original witness to the arrival of Cortez leaps onto a coffee table and executes what I am told is a traditional dance of the Zapoteca people. Aiiiii, Aiiii, she shouts, long white braids flying, feet stamping in a rhythm that Michael Flatley can only dream of.
Ignoring my protests, a little girl seizes me, and bravely attempts to instruct me in some byzantine series of foot movements. My stumblings are the comic hit of the evening, the crowd collapses in laughter, and the Zapotec lady shakes her head, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes with the end of a red ribbon threaded through her braid. It is because you are dying of hunger that you cannot do this dance. She holds out a sandwich. Here, eat pig.