Celebrated annually from December 16 to 24, Las Posadas (“The Inns”) is a Catholic novena (nine-day long prayer) and festival commemorating the flight of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of refuge for the birth of Jesus. Popular in Mexico and in the Mexican diaspora, Las Posadas arrived with the Spanish conquest of Mexico in attempts to replace the Panquetzaliztli festival celebrating the Indigenous Mexica god Huitzilopochtli during December.
Las Posadas includes a recitation of the rosary, the reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage to find food and shelter through a pastorela (Nativity play often performed by children), and a music-filled procession. Following the religious celebration is a feast often accompanied by the breaking of a piñata and gifting of an aguinaldo, a small Christmas gift typically including fruit, candies, and peanuts.
Celebrating Las Posadas with family in my hometown of Pico Rivera, California—a city in southeast Los Angeles County renowned for preserving the traditions of charrería (Mexican equestrian culture) and regional Mexican music—often involves horses and mariachis as part of religious processions.
Named after the last Mexican governor of California, Pío Pico, and located between the two rivers of San Gabriel and Río Hondo, Pico Rivera maintains ties to its agricultural and ranching heritage. Prior to Spanish and Mexican rule, the area was inhabited by the Gabrielino-Tongva people. Now, with 90.5 percent of the population identifying as Latinx, there is a strong Latinx cultural presence, and Las Posadas is a significant tradition in the community.
Central to Las Posadas is catering a homemade feast with a hot beverage and dessert. I am sharing my maternal family’s recipes from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, for a traditional meal for Las Posadas, including pozole rojo (a hominy and meat stew), ponche navideño (a hot fruit punch common to Christmas celebrations), and empanadas dulces (sweet empanadas stuffed with jam and covered in sugar and cinnamon).
While you’re cooking, listen to the Smithsonian Folkways album Cantos de Las Posadas and Other Christmas Songs to hear popular villancicos (carols) for the season. The significance of mariachi in Pico Rivera is evident in the Smithsonian’s collections, including materials from the mariachi ensemble formed in Pico Rivera and owned by Rebecca Gonzales, the first woman to play with Mariachi Los Camperos; Jesús “Chuy” Guzmán, who grew up in Pico Rivera and now directs Los Camperos following the death of founder Nati Cano; and fifth-generation mariachi José Hernández who founded the first all-women mariachi ensemble in the United States, Mariachi Reyna de Los Ángeles.
Pozole, from the Nahuatl pozolli, is a stew originating from pre-Columbian Mexico. There are many regional variations including white pozole, green pozole, and vegetarian pozole. As in pre-Columbian times, pozole is a popular celebratory dish.
2 gallons + 1 cup water
2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon salt
10 red chilis (Cascabel, California, or New Mexico chilis)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground oregano
8 cloves of garlic
5 pounds pork (3 pounds of neck bones and 2 pounds of maciza (boneless meat). You can also use pork feet and/or head. If preferred, you can substitute the 5 pounds of pork with one whole chicken.
2 pounds hominy
1 small white onion, kept whole
1 green cabbage, shredded
6 radishes, sliced
1 package tostadas
In a large pot, bring 2 gallons of water with 2 tablespoons of salt to boil.
Prepare the red salsa mixture by blending chilis, 1 teaspoon salt, cumin, oregano, 2 cloves of garlic, and 1 cup water.
Once the water is boiling, add the salsa, your meat of choice, hominy, onion, and the rest of the garlic to the pot. Let boil at medium heat, covered, for 2 hours.
Serve with shredded cabbage, chopped radishes, lime, and tostadas.
Ponche is one of the most popular beverages during the Christmas season. While fruit punch is common in various culinary traditions, ponche navideño is characterized by flavors of guava, tejocote, tamarind, sugarcane, apple, and hibiscus.
2 gallons water
2 cinnamon sticks
1 cup sugar
2 cups sugarcane, chopped
1 cup agua de jamaica (hibiscus water)
1 cup oranges, peeled and sliced
1 cup apples, sliced
1 cup guava, sliced
1 cup tamarind
1 cup tejocotes (Mexican hawthorn), sliced
1 cup dried prunes
In a large pot, combine water with cinnamon sticks, sugar, and sugarcane, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, add all the fruits and botanicals. Reduce the heat and let boil at low heat for an hour.
Add sugar to taste and serve warm. Optional: add a shot of tequila.
Empanadas are a staple in panaderías (bakeries). While there are many types of empanadas, my mom is well known for making sweet empanadas with jam, and she taught me how to make my favorite Christmas dessert.
4 cups all-purpose flour
4 sticks (1 pound) butter, room temperature
1 block (8 ounces) cream cheese, room temperature
2 jars of your preferred jam (we use pineapple and strawberry)
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 cup sugar
In one bowl, knead the flour, butter, and cream cheese until the ingredients are well mixed. Roll the dough into the size of golf balls. Use a tortilla press or a rolling pin to flatten the balls of dough until they are as thick as a tortilla.
Add a teaspoon of your jam of choice in the center of each dough circle. Fold the dough in half, then use a fork to seal the perimeter. With a toothpick, make a hole in the center of the empanada.
Bake at 350 degrees for 30–35 minutes. Take the empanadas out of the oven once they are golden and bubbling.
Let the empanadas cool for 10 minutes. On a separate plate, mix the sugar and cinnamon. Coat the empanadas with the mixture. Serve warm or fully cooled.
Las Posadas is a celebratory time to welcome all people and show hospitality. A memorable Posada is one where guests leave full and with treats to take home.
Natalie Amador Solis is the Latinx curatorial assistant for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and an alumna of the Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies Program.