This post was written by Sylvia Hernandez, Archivist at The Texas Collection.
Mexican culture and Catholicism are very much intertwined. I identify in both traditions and attend a church where my culture is highly visible. I remember going as a child during the Christmas season and participating in several traditional events. My family went to Las Posadas, traversing church grounds singing songs and seeking shelter for Mary and Joseph. The Nacimiento (Nativity Scene) was set up and the manger remained empty until Midnight Mass, as Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day. It was always a joy watching the padrinos (godparents) rock the baby Jesus in his basket down the aisle and gently placing him with Mary and Joseph. As a kid though, I fondly remember receiving a bag with an apple, orange, and a few pieces of candy at the end of mass. A small treat to celebrate the birth of Christ.
I preface this blog with my own story because memories came tumbling back as I processed the Pan American Round Table of Waco scrapbooks. The Pan American Round Table was established in 1916 as part of a larger movement to promote international relations in the western hemisphere. The Waco Chapter was established in 1957 as a local women’s group that met regularly and discussed culture and politics of the twenty-two countries in North, Central, and South America as well as the Caribbean. The scrapbooks document activities of the group from 1957-1995 through newsletters, photographs, yearbooks, correspondence, and photographs.
As I went through the books, the Christmas cards stood out for their visual content. Several of the cards, mostly from Mexico in the 1960s, depict the imagery I grew up with; Mary and Joseph on their journey to Bethlehem, los peregrinos (pilgrims), burros (donkeys), estrellas (stars), velas (candles), and piñatas. I mentioned these images to my coworkers, and they didn’t quite understand why I was so excited. In response, I have prepared the following as my quick interpretation of these images, what they represent, and why they are important from my point of view as a Mexican American Catholic.
Las Posadas/ Los Peregrinos– Las Posadas is a reenactment of the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem taken by Mary and Joseph. For nine nights prior to Christmas, los peregrinos visit houses, predetermined by the church, singing traditional songs seeking shelter for Mary and Joseph. They are denied over and over until finally, los peregrinos are granted shelter and celebrate with a large party. Members of the church dress up to represent Mary and Joseph, or a platform with their likenesses is carried throughout the journey.
Burros- Mary is often seen riding atop a donkey led by Joseph. It is unclear whether it happened or not but would make her journey easier at nine months of pregnancy. Burros are also seen ridden by others, usually children, as they reenact the journey by the wise men to bestow gifts upon the newborn king.
Estrellas/ Velas- La estrella is a depiction of the guiding star followed by Mary and Joseph as well as the wise men as they sought out Jesus after his birth. It is recognizable amongst other stars as it is often depicted larger and looks more illuminated than the rest. Velas are carried by los peregrinos on their journey also to guide them to shelter and Jesus.
Piñatas– In celebration of finding shelter Las Posadas ends with a party to celebrate the coming of our savior. There is a piñata broken by children in attendance, often in the shape of a star. Again, a guiding light to Christ.
The impact of the images in the scrapbooks provided a reminder of the true reason for the season, but also an opportunity to share and spread knowledge through alternate approaches. Our understanding of Christmas traditions is unique to our upbringing. Faith and culture were equally present in mine, therefore traditional images take the form of religious symbols heralded by those who look like me. They bring about memories if family lost and traditions upheld, a common thread no matter how you celebrate.