Latino Christmastime tradition unites diverse communities

Martha Arriaza, left, holds her son Walter, 6,

Martha Arriaza, left, holds her son Walter, 6, as she prays during a posada celebration at a home in Patchogue. (Dec. 17, 2013) (Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara)

''Las Posadas," a re-enactment of Joseph and Mary searching for shelter in Bethlehem popular in Latin America and in Latino communities in the United States, are attracting a growing number of

non-Latinos and their churches on Long Island.

This year, at least one mainly non-Latino church on Long Island conducted in English its own posadas, typically a nine-night event in which worshippers sing, pray and go house-to-house looking for a place to stay. Meanwhile, Spanish-language posadas in mainly Latino congregations are attracting a growing number of non-Latinos -- even when they don't speak Spanish.

Some church leaders say the events are helping to unite diverse communities on the Island, where the demographics are shifting.

"The idea is to help people to think about what it was like for Mary and Joseph not to have a place to go," said Louise Stowe-Johns, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Amityville. "It tells the story in a way that invites other people to be involved."

Her mostly non-Latino church held a posada this year for the first time since the church was founded in 1792.

On the North Fork, posadas in the past few years have attracted a number of non-Latinos including a Polish family that hosted one of them and treated the mostly Latino worshippers to kielbasa, said Sister Margaret Smyth, head of the North Fork Hispanic Apostolate for the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

The non-Latinos "love it. I've actually had people say to me, 'It's too bad we don't have a tradition like this in English,' " Smyth said. The posadas, she added, "help break down the walls" between ethnic groups.

The word "posada" means "lodging" or "inn." The Christmastime event recreates Mary and Joseph's search for a place to stay as they arrive in Bethlehem and Jesus' birth nears.

Typically, worshippers at posadas divide into two groups -- one representing Mary and Joseph outside a house knocking on the door and seeking shelter, the other the innkeepers inside saying there is no room until finally one relents.

Often the posada will take place at just one house each night, though sometimes worshippers travel to a few before they are finally let in. Once inside, they read from the Bible, pray, reflect about Christmas and sing religious hymns.

Then the children sometimes break open a piƱata made in the shape of a star -- representing the star of Bethlehem -- and everyone shares some food.

The posadas usually go on for nine consecutive nights and end on Christmas Eve, though some groups hold fewer events or conduct them earlier in the month. Stowe-Johns' congregation held two posadas this year.

"As a parent I thought it was a good lesson for my son," said Cathy Bedell, a teacher from Copiague who attended one of the posadas in Amityville with her son, Dylan, 10. "Every culture has something to add."

Posadas date back centuries in Latin America, but did not arrive on Long Island until the 1980s when the region saw an influx of immigrants from Central America and Mexico where the tradition is strong, said Manuel J. Ramos, a former head of the Diocese of Rockville Centre's Hispanic Apostolate.

Previously the Latino population on Long Island was dominated by Puerto Ricans, who more commonly celebrate a different Christmastime tradition of early morning Masses, he said.

The posadas "remind people of the real meaning" of Christmas, Ramos said. "It's not Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. It's the birth of Christ."

Reina Perez, 43, an immigrant from El Salvador, said she has attended posadas in the Patchogue area for the past 20 years because "it fills me with life. I'm happy because it is another year of remembering the birth of Jesus and feeling the warmth of Christmas."

Some churches hold posadas in the homes of parishioners who attend Mass but are not deeply integrated in the parish, helping to create a deeper bond, said the Rev. Martin Curtin of St. Joseph the Worker Roman Catholic Church in East Patchogue.

As the Latino population grows on Long Island, more non-Latinos will likely take part in posadas, which may even become bilingual, said Francisco Cales, head of the Hispanic Apostolate for the Diocese of Rockville Centre.

"It's truly heartwarming to see how people who don't speak the language partake of these celebrations," he said. "That's what happens with the faith. It doesn't matter the language. It's just a celebration of faith."

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