MEXICO CITY: For Miguel Zadquiel, the secret to staying in step as he dances at the front of the annual Christmastime procession through his neighborhood is in the bass drum.
“For every sound it makes, I move one foot, then another one, then I jump around, then I move my shoulders,” he said.
The 14-year-old was one of the dozens of dancers and musicians at the front of this week’s joyful parade of people winding through the streets of the Mexico City borough of Xochimilco. This festive procession and its related events are known as a posada and happen across the country. The yearly, Catholic tradition carries on for nine nights, starting Dec. 16 and ending on the 24th.
The style of each posada varies from town to town, but traditionally it is a re-enactment of part of the Christmas story. Night after night, two volunteers dress as Mary and Joseph and walk through their community, knocking on a different door each day of the Posada season. Their journey symbolizes the biblical couples’ walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the eventual refuge they find in a stable where Jesus is born.
Some neighbors join in the procession carrying candles. Others wait for it to arrive at the home where the pair playing the holy couple is finally received and the celebration continues. There’s singing, sharing of traditional food and the breaking open of a piñata when the colorful papier-mâché container gives way, spilling candy into the hands of the children waiting in anticipation.
Posada season in Xochimilco is unique in that the neighborhood honors the Niñopa – the most venerated image of baby Jesus in the borough and considered its patron – and the story of Mary and Joseph simultaneously.
“This is the first time I’ve come, and I really like how joyful everything is,” said Donaldo López, who lives about an hour away but was invited by his sister who recently moved to Xochimilco.
Beside him, two young girls threw confetti to the street as their mother readied her camera to take a picture of the Niñopa. The origin of the Niñopa is unclear, but the life-size wooden figure of a baby in white is believed to be about 450 years old and found after the Spanish conquest. Catholic families in Xochimilco typically keep images of him in their homes.
“He’s very miraculous,” said Fernanda Mimila, a Xochimilco resident watching the procession. “We’ve read many stories about him and every time my family and I are near him, we can feel his vibes and we feel like crying.”
Devotees were once allowed to touch and carry the Niñopa, but it’s now considered too old for frequent handling and requires more care to maintain its condition, said Abraham Cruz. The Xochimilco resident and his relatives had the honor of hosting the Niñopa in their home for this year’s 6th posada and held a celebration for it, a common occurrence during Posadas season. Families request to host the Niñopa years in advance.
“Today’s posada was assigned 10 years ago,” Cruz said. “The family that organized the second posada of this season had to wait for 28 years!”
The Xochimilco posadas last several hours longer than most, and start at 8 a.m. when the host family picks up the Niñopa from its stewards. It ends about a dozen hours later when the figure is returned. Throughout the day, a priest celebrates a Mass, a meal is served and devotees can approach the homemade altar where the Niñopa is kept until nightfall.
Everyone can join the night celebration when volunteers hand out sparklers, balloons and confetti. The neighborhood comes to life with couples holding hands, young men pushing their grandmothers in wheelchairs and parents hugging their children to keep them warm.
This week hundreds of neighbors wearing shiny hats moved alongside the musicians and the dancers, like 14-year-old Miguel Zadquiel, who were leading the procession and propelling the festive spirit. The group of dancers at the head -- known as a “comparsa” – are devoted to a specific image of the infant Jesus. Each member wears a long velvet robe, a big drum-like hat and a mask depicting an old man -- a costume meant to mock the Spanish conquerors.
The pair – a girl and boy for the 6th posada of the season -- playing Mary and Joseph follows the dancers. At the end, the Niñopa, traveling by van, slowly makes its way through the crowds.
Magda Reyes, dressed in pink, walked next to her 7- and 11-year-old daughters. She has attended these posadas since she was a kid.
“We are very devoted to the Niñopa,” she said. “My mom used to bring me here to celebrate him, so now I’m bringing my girls.”
On the final night of Posada season, the procession will reach its destination where the crowd will sing a lullaby for the infant Jesus, once again welcoming the Christ child’s arrival on Christmas Day.