Wednesday, December 21, 2005

'Las Posadas' performed in Hailey

Centuries-old holiday tradition comes to the Wood River Valley

Express Staff Writer

Mary and Joseph arrive at the door of a home only to be turned away, not once, but twice, before a humble host welcomes them in Bethlehem. As the biblical story was repeated at the St. Charles Catholic Church meeting hall in Hailey last Wednesday, it was truly a cold, inhospitable night.

For the first time, a Catholic tradition called "Las Posadas" that still thrives in Mexico is being enacted in the Wood River Valley. Also called a Posada party, participants re-enact the journey of Mary and Joseph as they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Those who participated were indeed grateful for shelter after marching through the cold to re-enact the challenges of the Christ child's parents.

Tony Morales, a Ketchum painting contractor who grew up in the United States, remembers participating in the tradition when he was about 4 years old on a vacation with his family in Mexico.

"It was a bunch of fun," Morales said, trying to settle his nervousness and brushing up with the "Santa Biblia" for his role as narrator before the re-enactment, when an angel announces the birth of Jesus. "This is the first chance to have ("Las Posadas") here. Instead of Santa Claus, in Mexico, Christmas is about the story of Mary and Joseph."

Traditionally, Las Posadas is celebrated every evening from Dec. 16 to 24. Neighbors walk to three homes in search of shelter, singing and saying prayers. They are turned away twice, but the third home offers shelter. Some people play the pilgrims, while others play innkeepers. The host that recognizes the Holy Family welcomes them and once inside, following some final prayers, the fun begins—with dancing, singing and hot drinks.

"I think by the end, with the cold, more people were on the inside singing," said Sister Regina Burrichter, who helped guide the ceremony. "I think everyone did very well."

Sister Burrichter, from the "Order of Mercy" in Philadelphia, has traveled the world spreading the Catholic faith. She spent years on the Mexican border in Texas, where she became very familiar with Spanish and "Las Posadas."

Lionel Reyes, who played the main character of "Jose," was joined by his wife, Silvia Balenz-Valencia, who played "Maria." Reyes knocked with his fist and then his cane as he sought shelter for his family, first at the front door of the meeting hall, then at the back door, and finally gaining shelter after knocking a third time—again at the front door.

After more singing back and forth, Sister Burrichter announced, "Todo el mundo, entran perigrinos!"

Typically, the re-enactment would travel from one home to another, but as the tradition is new to the area, the first exercise was practiced at the church where participants could be guided through the experience, Sister Burrichter said. Subsequent evenings were to be hosted by different families in the valley.

"Las Posadas" had a substantial turnout following an already solid celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is celebrated on Dec. 12. About 450 people arrived at 5 a.m. last Monday to sing "mananitas" -- morning songs -- in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patroness of the Americas. It is one of the holiest days of the year for many Hispanic Catholics. After prayers and music in the church, food was served at the meeting hall and everyone returned at 5:30 p.m. for Mass, a drama on a stage erected in the church, followed by dinner, served again in the meeting hall.

"Our church seats 250," Sister Burrichter said, explaining that the faithful spilled out of its doors. Attendance at Spanish-language Mass, which sees between 320 and 380 Hispanics every Saturday evening, has been on the rise over the three years Sister Burrichter has served in Hailey. The rising numbers are attributed to the widespread growth that is occurring in the valley.

Wednesday's "Las Posadas" celebration was entirely spontaneous, Sister Burrichter said. She did not know if even 10 people would attend. She was clearly very pleased with the turnout, and judging by the dancing and singing that followed, so were those who came out in the cold to participate. Sister Burrichter reminded everyone that the celebration would be repeated again Friday night at the Salamanca residence in Gannett and at a few other homes, before it returned again to St. Charles in the nights leading to a Spanish-language Mass on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24.

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