White Angels carry the Nacimiento, during the 72nd annual Las Posadas procession put on by Carrillo Elementary Magnet Schoool, Friday December 12, 2008 in Tucson, Ariz. School children reenact the christmas story through Barrio Historico neighborhood. 

James S. Wood / Arizona Daily Star

If you are out and about in the evenings in the barrios on the southwest side of town, you might encounter a procession of men, women, and children, carrying little statues of Joseph and Mary, walking down a residential street They have musicians with them, and they are singing. One of the songs says, in translation, “Who will give shelter/ To these pilgrims./Who arrive tired/ From traveling the roads?”

These folks are participating in an ancient Mexican custom called Las Posadas – “The Lodgings,” depicting Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem. The custom was introduced in the 16th Century, as a way to teach the Biblical narratives through community drama. It is still performed today throughout Mexico.

The procession halts at a pre-arranged house, singing their request for shelter. The folks inside keep the door closed, and reply with another song that announces that they don’t open their door to strangers. The procession moves. Finally they reach the last house of the evening, where the doors are opened to a song of welcome. Everyone files in, puts the holy figures on an altar, and enjoys hot chocolate and cookies before departing.

The next night the same scene will be repeated, usually for the nine nights before Christmas Eve. This night, the procession often ends at the sponsoring church, with more refreshments, and the breaking of a piñata in the form of the Star of Bethlehem.

To find out about Las Posadas processions, the best thing to do would be to call the different Catholic churches on Tucson’s south and west sides. Tucson’s oldest continuing Posadas procession has been enacted since the 1930s by the students of Carrillo Elementary School. Unfortunately, that procession has come and gone already.

There is another traditional Mexican Christmas drama put on annually in Tucson; La Pastorela or “The Shepherds’ Play.” It relates the shepherds’ journey to Bethlehem to see the Holy Babe. Along the way, they are beset by diabolical temptations, and protected by the Archangel Michael and his sidekick, Gabriel. The characters are stock ones: the two angels, a hermit, shepherds, a doubting woman, and in this case, a sheep and a dog. The characters and plot remain the same, but each year’s script reflects what is going on in the world. For example, one year the shepherds were trying to cross the Border and got rounded up by Minutemen. An ancient story with contemporary, regional details.

The 18th annual Tucson Pastorela will be presented by Borderlands Theater in the Leo Rich Auditorium. The dates are December 19-21. For information call 882-7406.