Las Posadas

Christmas in El Paso

WHEN Lola Gonzales read that a traditional Mexican celebration of Christmas called Las Posadas was to be held in downtown El Paso, she says she made it a point to attend, bringing her sisters-in-law and their children.

``We drove 12 miles to get here,'' she says, noting that Las Posadas traditions had faded out in her neighborhood.

People like Mrs. Gonzales are exactly who Tanny Berg had in mind three years ago when he suggested that El Paso stage an annual Las Posadas festivity.

``Christmas is losing out to commerce,'' Mr. Berg explains. ``Ataris and Nintendo took over.''

Berg not only wished to revive the city's Christmas spirit, but do it in a culturally authentic way. El Paso is 70 percent Hispanic, but it tends to be culturally dominated by the 30 percent who are Anglo, he says. Berg believed that reviving the tradition would help unify the city.

Berg shrugs off the irony of his being a Jewish merchant.

``You don't have to be a Christian to feel the magic of the season,'' he says. But ``the magic was receding.'' It was time for El Paso to remember ``the whole source of our heritage,'' he says.

Many cultures have contributed to the array of traditions with which Christmas is celebrated in America. Most homes in which the birth of Jesus is observed with reverence probably also feature mistletoe, a Christmas tree, and stockings hung by the chimney with care ``in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.'' Rudolph and Frosty are also likely present, thanks to the endurance of the relatively new (1949 and `50, respectively) popular songs that spawned them.

Increasingly throughout the Southwest, Hispanic Americans are adding Las Posadas to the mix. It means ``the shelters.'' But to children in Mexico it refers to the nine days before Christmas. That's when the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem and their search for shelter is reenacted.

The tradition began with the arrival of the Spanish. The priests who accompanied them found that symbolic reenactments were an important part of the natives' religious worship. To help win converts, the friars reenacted the Nativity. In addition, the destruction of pinatas shaped like stars represented the abandonment of pagan beliefs.

As in Mexico, celebrants here divide themselves into groups of travelers and innkeepers. The travelers sing their request for shelter at each door, only to hear a rejection sung by innkeepers 11 times. On the 12th verse, the travelers are admitted, and the celebrations begin.

The traditional food for Las Posadas begins with tamales, ground meat wrapped in cornmeal dough and corn husks and cooked. Bunuelos are cinnamon pastries; champurrado is a chocolate drink. Every child receives a bag of candy, peanuts, and fruit.

In El Paso last week, several hundred people crowded into historic San Jacinto plaza in the heart of downtown, just blocks from the Mexican border. Under bushy green and red tinsel ropes, they listened to the Ramona Elementary School Choir perform songs like ``Silent Night/Noche de Paz'' and, in an example of modern-day cultural cross-pollination, ``Pablo, the Reindeer From Mexico.'' A sombrero-and-serape-clad Santa Claus looked on.

The reenactment followed: A score of friars from St. Anthony's seminary in El Paso sang and played instruments as Joseph led Mary astride a burro to the center of the plaza.

``Fortunate is the house that shelters this day the pure Virgin, the beautiful Mary,'' sang the crowd and the friars, as the travelers found a place to stay.

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