As a young girl in Guatemala, Sandra Rybachek would race through the village streets on Christmas Eve with other neighborhood children, her pockets full of firecrackers.
The children, costumed as biblical characters, led a procession that often included a brass band, part of the nine-day Latino Christmas celebration called Las Posadas.
As they paraded through the streets, the participants knocked on doors, re-enacting the story of Joseph and a pregnant Mary seeking shelter in Bethlehem.
Rybachek, now 50 and a resident of Madison for the past 19 years, still celebrates Las Posadas, as do many Latino immigrants in the U.S., although some details have changed. Forced indoors by the Midwestern winter — “It’s too cold out there,” Rybachek said — participants in the Madison area tend to parade through a house instead of a neighborhood, knocking on interior doors to symbolize the quest for lodging.
“Las Posadas is really a festival of acceptance: Who will receive the child? Who will find room in their heart for Jesus, the son of God?” said the Rev. Pat Size, pastor of Hispanic ministries at Madison’s Grace Episcopal Church.
She led a Las Posadas celebration Saturday evening, attended by Rybachek and 12 others at the Madison home of Mary Ray Worley, who leads the music for the weekly Hispanic service at Grace Episcopal.
Posadas is Spanish for shelter or lodging. The Las Posadas festivities are celebrated each evening from Dec. 16 to 24, the nine days signifying the nine months Mary carried Jesus in her womb.
In the 400-year-old Mexican tradition, a party is held each night in a different neighborhood home. The costumed guests — children often dress as Mary or Joseph — parade up and down the street with candles, singing a song that asks for shelter. Usually at the third or fourth house, the participants are invited in for a communal celebration, said the Rev. Gilberto Cavazos-Gonzalez, an associate professor of spirituality at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago who specializes in contemporary Hispanic spirituality.
“It’s a retelling of the Christmas story, with the emphasis on being rejected and finally finding a place to stay,” he said.
Las Posadas is a distinctly Mexican Catholic tradition, although Latino culture is so steeped in Catholicism that even Protestant Latinos often end up using Catholic traditions, Cavazos-Gonzalez said. Variations of Las Posadas exist all over Latin America, and the tradition seems to have taken a strong hold among the nearly 13 million Mexican immigrants in the U.S., he said.
“It builds a strong sense of community among Latinos because of the nine nights of gathering,” said Oscar Rozo, 26, a graduate of Madison’s Edgewood College who is now studying to become an Episcopal priest.
Many Madison-area churches hold Las Posadas services, including Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Downtown Madison, which has a large number of Latino parishioners, and the James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Congregation, which incorporates diverse cultural traditions in its services.
But it is the house parties that reflect the truest Las Posadas traditions.
At the Worley home Saturday, Maria Rybachek, 15, a sophomore at Madison East High School and Sandra Rybachek’s daughter, pinned a blue veil to her hair and carried blankets to portray Mary. David Vazquez, 33, a Mexico City resident studying at the Wisconsin English as a Second Language Institute in Madison, donned a straw hat and strode barefoot as Joseph.
As Worley played guitar, the guests, holding candles, sang in Spanish the traditional Las Posadas songs as the costumed Mary and Joseph walked to different parts of the house to ask for lodging. Success came for them in the song’s fifth verse. “Come in, holy pilgrims,” the participants sang. “Accept this corner, not of this poor house, but of my heart.”
The ceremony lasted about 15 minutes, followed by a potluck of meatballs, lentil soup and chips and salsa.
“The party is a festive reminder that if you do accept Jesus into your life, then your eternal life will be a celebration,” said Cavazos-Gonzalez.
Often, a pinata for children closes the evening. On Friday night, the nine days of festivities will end for many with a midnight Mass or prayer service.