Piñatas, Candies, and Pilgrims
By Jesús Aguado
December is the season of colored lights and candles, songs, ponche, tamales, atole, piñatas, posadas—processions that recreate the pilgrimage of Joseph and Mary prior to baby Jesus’s birth—and the most precious for children, aguinaldos (bags with candies and toys).
The Christmas season and the posadas no doubt bring memories of childhood—like being pressed among a pile of children eager to get candies from the broken piñata, or experiencing that particular smell of burnt hair when a candle accidentally touches the child in front. This is the season when adults remember the path of the pilgrims going from one house to the other and the litany, plus the ora pro nobis (pray for us) when they did not know where the next house in the posada was. Ora pro nobis has been changed to mean “Where are we now?”
The origin of the posadas—as we know them now—undoubtedly dates from the time of the colonization of this land. When the Spanish arrived and decided to instill Catholicism in the natives in a playful way, they presented farces of the main religious events. That is how they accomplished evangelization, and how Mexicans understood the pilgrimage of Joseph and Mary before the birth of the Messiah.
However, this is not a pure European tradition. The National Commission of Indigenous Towns (CDI) states that the origin of the festivities matches the celebration that the Aztecas held to celebrate the birth of Huitzilopochtli (the sun god). The festivities took place December 7-26, dates that coincided with the Spanish tradition of celebrating the nativity. The celebration of the Mexicans was held on December 24, and the next day there was a party at every home, where they offered delicious dinners to their guests, plus little statuettes made of tzoal (comestible clay made of plants).
The CDI explains that in 1857 Fray Diego de Soria obtained a permit from Pope Sixto V to celebrate the Misas de Aguinaldo in New Spain. Those masses were held annually December 16-24 in the esplanades of the churches, where farces were presented along with the nativity scene (mostly represented by pastorelas—Christmas plays). After a few years, people decided to keep celebrating their pagan festivities at home. It was not until 1808 that the posadas as they are known now started to be celebrated by the inhabitants of New Spain. During these celebrations, people prayed and sang, and there were processions (of the holy pilgrims) and fireworks. A piñata was broken at the end of the ceremony, and the attendees received aguinaldos—small bags filled with candies and toys.
The public posadas in San Miguel
In San Miguel, there are documents stating that the first posadas in the Villa of San Miguel el Grande (San Miguel de Allende today) were celebrated in 1737 during masses called “aguinaldo” at the Oratorio, where currently the most traditional posadas are held yearly. At 6pm the mass is celebrated; later people pray the rosary. After they finish praying, an altar boy pulls a cart with the images of the holy pilgrims while the attendees sing Christmas carols and pray the litany ora pro nobis. The posada (shelter) is requested by a tuna oratoriana (music group) from the Oratorio, and is sung outside the Holy House of Loreto, located at the Oratorio. The posada concludes with handing out aguinaldos. Historian Gloria Navarrete says that during the posadas at the Oratorio, some Christmas carols written by Sanmiguelenses José María Correa and Genaro Sandí in the early 1900s, such as “Llegó el tiempo” (The time has come) or “Avecillas tristes” (Sad Birds) can still be heard.
Public posadas feature live pilgrims in costumes of Mary, Joseph, and the angel, who pass through the streets in a car.
A document published in 1995 by then city historian José Cornelio López Espinosa states that there were public posadas in 1913 in San Miguel. However, due to the Revolutionary War, they were canceled. At that time, the cart with the pilgrims was pulled by mules. In December 1939, during Elulalio Nava’s administration—information confirmed by Gloria Navarrete—the tradition was restored.
Navarrete, who was invited to portray the Virgin Mary in 1956, commented that when she participated, the cart carrying the image of the misterio (statue of the Virgin) was the one used for collecting the garbage in the city. She also said that the procession was headed by shepherds who used to sing Christmas carols, accompanied by music from a sax, a guitar, and a trumpet. The musicians were followed by the pilgrims, and behind the pilgrims, said Navarrete, “There was a very old cart carrying the piano of Antonio Correa and a choir. At every stop in the procession they sang San Miguel Christmas carols.”
Gustavo Vidargas, Director of Culture and Traditions in San Miguel, remembers that in the past (the date is uncertain), the only public posada (nowadays they are in every neighborhood and church) was the one in the historic center. It was the posada of the Sanmiguelenses. When the holy pilgrims were strolling through the streets, people used to throw fruit and candies from the balconies. Other families used to hang piñatas across streets, from one balcony to another, and they were broken by the shepherds following the posada. Vidargas commented that Rodolfo Pérez had the Corona brewery franchise in San Miguel. When the posada passed by, he threw trays. On calle San Francisco, the Alcalá family donated hats, and in Plaza Principal, one of the owners, Manuel Zavala, threw small parachutes with money from the former posada San Francisco. To continue the tradition of the Christmas program here in SMA and to begin the posadas, the Classic Ballet from the University of Guanajuato will perform on Wednesday, December 16, at 4pm. At 7pm the first posada will leave from the Jardín Principal towards San Francisco. The second posada will start in front of the church of San Francisco and end up at Las Monjas church.
Live music has always been part of the pilgrimage. Currently the band that accompanies the celebration, according to Emmanuel Aclalá, member of the VIP Orchestra, is made up of a guitar, a bass, a violin, two trumpets, and a saxophone. The music is always the same, but the lyrics, distributed by the Culture Department, change. Alcalá is 28 years old and has participated in this event since he was eight.
The posadas take place December 16-24. For the processions it is essential to have a misterio (sculpture of the Virgin Mary riding a donkey with Joseph walking next to the donkey, and an angel lighting the path). Traditionally, the misterio is carried by children. Neighbors organize celebrations, and for the first posada the misterio leaves from a private house or from a church to go to someone else’s house, where the attendees pray. After the prayers, those who host the posada share hot beverages and candies for children and smash piñatas.