The month of December is the perfect time to take advantage of traditions to strengthen your Hispanic community.
My husband, children and I live far away from any of our extended family. There are so many times that we wish we had them closer. We wish our children could grow up close to them to know them better and we could rely on them for support from time to time. Growing up in the prevailing culture in the United States, I’ve always been pretty independent and encouraged to spread my wings. So I can only imagine the experience of moving far away from extended family, and sometimes even their immediate family, that many immigrants to the U.S. have. Hispanics in particular come from cultures that are for the most part highly collective, meaning there is much more emphasis placed on the group than on the individual. One’s identity is strongly formed by the group and one’s role in it. Leaving this tight-knit support and moving to a country where everyone basically minds their own business can lead to isolation, depression, loneliness, addictions and losing oneself in work.
The Church can be a place where the void is filled with a close-knit community. One very effective way that a parish in particular can foster this sense of community is by taking advantage of Hispanic traditions during the month of December and beyond.
Here are some examples and how some parish communities have kept these traditions alive. If you would like more information about organizing one of these I would be happy to share resources I’ve used or created! Just shoot me an email at email@example.com
- Novenas: Praying the rosary together could be connected to just about any feast day, but it is particularly important in connection to Marian feasts. Since in many places the majority of Hispanics are Mexican, praying a novena to Our Lady of Guadalupe works great. The community can be invited to sign up to host a night (or day depending on work schedules) and then a schedule is distributed with times and places for each night. A team of pastoral leaders can divide up the nine days to help guide the novena. The whole parish is invited but the host family also makes it a point to invite their friends and family. A pilgrim image of Our Lady of Guadalupe spends the night in the host family’s home and they bring the image to the next house the following night. The leader guides those present in a short reflection and the rosary, including a Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Between decades a verse of a Marian hymn can be sung. As is customary in Hispanic culture, the host family usually provides a light meal.
- Our Lady of Guadalupe Celebration: If you are unfamiliar with the story of the apparitions to Juan Diego in Mexico, take some time to investigate because it is central to the faith life and devotion of people from all over the Americas, but especially for Mexicans. It is customary to sing mañanitas (Marian hymns) to Our Lady in the early hours of December 12th. At the Basilica in Mexico City this happens right at midnight. Around the U.S. parishes may have these at midnight, 4am, 6am, etc. At St. Michael’s we celebrate mass in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe right after the mañanitas at midnight. Then there is a pot-luck celebration afterward in the parish hall. Volunteers decorate an elaborate desert scene with lots of roses where we bring in the pilgrim image that has spent nine days in different parishioners’ homes. Some parishes decorate giant altars of roses. Some have committees who start fundraising months ahead of time to pay for these decorations or to invite mariachi bands.
- Skits: Many parishes have youth or young adults put on a skit of the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Or there is another tradition of something called a pastorela. The main theme of a pastorela is that the baby Jesus has just been born, the angels go to the shepherds to tell them and the devil and his demons do everything they can to keep the shepherds from arriving. They’re usually very comical but help us all remember the temptations we face to not keep Jesus as the center of Christmas.
- Processions: While the climate in some areas makes this difficult during December, processions are a key component of popular devotions across Latin America. They of course work best in small towns or in a city where the Hispanic population is somewhat concentrated. Parishes could organize processions with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe between houses of the Novena or to church on the last day. A truck could be decorated to carry the image and a small choir to lead Marian hymns during the walk. Don’t forget to talk to the authorities for the right permits or permissions.
- Posadas: Posadas are a reenactment of Joseph and Mary searching for a place to stay in Bethlehem. A posada is an inn. Posadas are organized very similarly to the Novena described above with host families. At the start of the Posada half the group is outside and half the group is inside. You can dress up children or youth as Mary and Joseph and can also use pilgrim images from a manger scene that are carried from house to house each night. There is a traditional song that is sung where the people outside are playing the role of Joseph begging for a place to stay and the people inside are playing the role of the innkeepers to tell them to go away. In some places where houses are close enough groups even go from house to house begging until one finally lets them in. Otherwise, by the end of the song the host family opens up and welcomes Mary & Joseph and all the pilgrims inside. A pastoral leader shares a reflection and then Spanish Christmas carols are sung, usually followed by a light meal.
- Arrullar (Lull to sleep) the Baby Jesus: In some areas of Latin America there is a whole ceremony around placing the baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas Eve. There are several resources online to encourage families to celebrate this tradition at home with each family member having different roles. This could also be celebrated as a parish family. Families can be invited to bring their images of the baby Jesus from their manger scenes to the Christmas Eve Mass. There can be a special moment during Mass to bless the images, to invite those present to come forward to kiss the baby Jesus from the parish manger scene (or several images depending on the crowd) and then sing a song while each family rocks their babies. The traditional song is “a la ro ro Niño.”
- And more! If you want to continue through the Christmas season there is also the traditional rosca (sweet bread in the shape of a crown) to celebrate the Three Kings and celebrating Candelaria (Candlemas) on Feb. 2nd with a ceremony around dressing the baby Jesus and presenting him in the temple.
While these traditions can be helpful in teaching the basics of the faith and keeping culture alive, our experience at St. Michael’s is that they have also helped create a sense of community that has strengthened our Hispanic Ministry all year long. There is comradery that is built over prayers and songs and tamales, pozole, tacos & ceviche. Those relationships help people, especially immigrants, feel that they have a support network and they are not alone. Building community is an essential element of any successful Hispanic Ministry.
Does your parish celebrate these or other traditions? Share in the comment section what your experience has been like!