On a clear and subfreezing night, with a nearly-full moon emulating a famous Bethlehem star, parishioners of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Waynesboro, paraded door to door around the church buildings to find shelter for María y José, in a replay of the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph, who search for shelter in Bethlehem so that Mary can give birth to her child.
The celebration, called Las Posadas, is a traditional Mexican novena (prayers said over nine nights or times), which usually lasts for the nine nights before Christmas, starting Dec. 16 through Dec. 24.
This year, St. John’s decided to do an adapted Las Posadas family celebration that began Dec. 19 with crafts, a procession, hymns, prayers and refreshments, which continued Wednesday and culminated with a Christmas mass Friday and a fiesta with tamales and hot cocoa in the cafeteria.
Led by St. John’s Coordinator of Hispanic Ministry Jose Rodriguez, Directory of Ministry to Youth and Children Michele Kresge, and Director of Christian Formation for Adults Jeanne Branch, approximately 30-35 people participated, including some students of Rodriguez’ Spanish language class.
Adults and children alike, portrayed the various parts in the replay, including Fanny Leon, 12, a student at Kate Collins Middle School as María; Johan Beltran, 8, from Stuarts Draft Elementary, as José. Other participants were shepherds, wise men, angels, cows, sheep, a donkey and a camel.
Brian O’Rourke, 48, retired from the U.S. Army three years ago from a 23-year career, portrayed a camel during the first procession.
“I think it’s important the church offers outreach to all groups of people. It looks like it went well,” O’Rourke said Sunday.
“I’ve been all over the world and all the people I’ve met have been very nice. This type of activity makes the world small. It’s sad that some people don’t want it that way.”
Leon, was more embarrassed, she said, to play the part of Jesus’ mother, Mary.
“I felt weird, like a stranger,” she said. “I felt like everyone was staring at me and that I looked funny.”
Her soon-to-be stepmother, Maria Vera, said Leon did feel embarrassed, at first.
“But she became excited when she got into the role,” Vera said. “She’s kind of shy, but very outgoing.”
Crafts, during the three-day celebration, included a game similar to musical chairs in which all present had to answer a question about Christmas in either Spanish or English and when the music played had to introduce themselves to others until the music stopped, at which time they were to go to another table, meet some new people and answer another question. Then it began again. A second craft included using colored strips of paper, which held the individual questions from the first game and craft the strips into colorful chains to be used around the cafeteria.
The final evening of Las Posadas included a procession up to the altar in the church in the presence of the congregation, singing the traditional Christmas Las Posadas carol, for a Christmas Eve vigil mass.
Vera said that in Mexico, the people don’t celebrate Thanksgiving or Halloween, though they do mark the Day of the Dead, which occurs Nov. 2 in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2). So they have adapted their holidays.
“Las Posadas is our way to celebrate the Christmas story,” Vera said. “It is great for St. John’s to take the opportunity and allow it.
“We used to have someone who said the mass in Spanish, but we lost them. But they’re trying to reinstate the Spanish programs.
It was the church’s loss of the Spanish-speaking mass that caused Vera and her family to drift away some years ago, from St. John’s. But now, with the new programs that Hispanic coordinator Rodriguez is introducing, her family is returning.
“It is really great and it gives us an opportunity to be a part of the church family again,” said Vera.
Vera and her mother became U.S. citizens two years ago and her father prior to that, but during their time since immigrating from Mexico in 1993, they’ve had to struggle
“We’ve been here a long time,” said the Mary Baldwin marketing, communications and graphic design degree holder said. “I did go through some racism but it’s hard for me to remember exactly. Some people assume because of my skin and hair color, they think I can’t speak English and are very surprised when I tell them I can understand and that what they’re saying is wrong.”
Vera is sure that lots of people have experienced situations and experiences of racism, even citizens born in the U.S. who have moved from different parts of the country to others.
“A lot of people judge others,” Vera said. “It’s just human nature.”
Vera, who graduated from Waynesboro High School in 2002, said that most of the people she has encountered have been very nice.
“But it’s not just Hispanics that experience racism. Even Black Americans and Asian Americans do.
“A lot of people don’t realize that can hurt.”
Branch and Rodriguez discussed what Las Posadas meant to them.
Branch said that driving to Waynesboro from her Charlottesville home gave her the opportunity to reflect on the Nativity story and her participation in the Las Posadas celebration.
“I got a chance to say ‘No,’ to the pilgrims twice,” said Branch. “It really made me think about the rejection.”
Rodriguez said that rejection is what a lot of immigrants go through.
Branch agreed and said, “All of us have been rejected at one time or another, so we all know what it feels like.”
Rodriguez said the Hispanic celebration was a way for people to get closer to one another.
“It is an offer to all the groups the church. Like our sign says, it’s a way to ‘Come home,’” he said. “Come and see. Experience what it’s like to be in another culture. See how much better it is for them to feel at home in their own language.”
Vera agreed that it was much homier to hear events in Spanish, though she speaks English with only a very slight accent.
“It is more difficult for older people to pick up new languages,” she said.
Although she has been raised since the age of eight in the U.S., Vera said she will never forget her heritage.
“I’ve had opportunities to experience more of it with visits to family there and I remember pieces of it from my childhood. And with my mom and dad and brothers, we still speak Spanish in our house.
“I see a lot of Christians who treat other people differently,” Vera said. “The Hispanic and American cultures need to learn more about one another and José is doing a great job of getting everyone together.
“I would never think anybody didn’t belong here and I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to have two cultures in my background.”