An ‘Inn-side’ story of Las Posada

An ‘Inn-side’ story of Las Posada

Celebrated until Christmas eve, Las Posadas — Mexican for Inn — shines the spotlight on traditional fare like tamales, buñuelos, atole and pinata, writes Vikas Seth


The story of Las Posada (Mexican for giving shelter) is a rather short one. It is this nine-day pre-Christmas eve celebration that is said to have been introduced by the Augustinian friars of San Agustin de Acolman. The story goes that in 1586, Friar Diego de Soria, the Augustinian prior, obtained a papal bull from Pope Sixtus V to hold what today is referred to as misas de aguinaldo (Christmas bonus mass).

As one of the Church-initiated events back in the day, the early years of Las Posada’s celebration comprised a mass followed by a special meal prepared for the guests, who would be presented with an idol made of ground toasted corn and agave syrup. The highlight of this nine-day festival was a retelling of the arduous journey that Joseph and Mary endured from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of that safe place to give birth to baby Jesus before they landed in a pen. In keeping with the tradition, for nine days, while artistes dressed as Joseph and Mary travel different taverns of the city, most eateries prepare special dishes that were a part of the first Las Posadas with Tamale taking centre stage. There are over a dozen different kinds of Tamales made across Mexico during this time.

Over the years, as Las Posada transformed into a community event, there were many new additions including the tradition of hanging a candy-filled Pinata, breaking of which marks the beginning of the celebration. 

While on the surface Las Posadas doesn’t seem much different from the Christmas celebrations across the world, but that is until one realises that Posadas (Mexican for Inn) was inspired by another traditional ritual called the Mayan Winter Solstice. One of the major winter festivals in ancient Mexico, the Winter Solstice marked the new Great Cycle of time when days became longer.

Termed as the “birth of a new solar year,” the festival was an ode to Mayan astronomical precision and enlightening ideas of the future. The centre of this astronomical miracle was the El Castillo Temple at Chichén Itzá, a Maya-Toltec ceremonial complex. Here, on the given day, people would gather to see the sunrise from one side of the temple and then roll up onto the other. In fact, so accurate was the forecast that at a certain hour of the day one could witness complete darkness on the south side while the west lit up like a bright day. Such was the effect of this miracle that the Mayans and later dynasties continued celebrating the new solar year. To celebrate the miracle, Mayans feasted on a bevy of delicious dishes, including the balmy champurrado or Chocolate Atole, a drink made of masa and chocolate and that was, and is, loved for its rich, bitter, spicier taste; and Tamale that unlike its reputation of being “a poor man’s meal” was considered a winter delight. In fact, back then, Tamales were made with all kinds of leaves including corn ears and kept for the large duration of winters when foraging or growing food was not possible. Food lore has it that before the onset of winters, community kitchens would mushroom and would collect, prep, and cook meat, vegetable and other foraged ingredients to be filled in these little wrappers to be stowed away as food for most of the winters. These Tamales would be stored as per the ingredient used and would often be the main meal of the day when a large bag would be opened, steamed, and served hot, gaining it the moniker of ‘hot Tamales’.

Tamales weren’t just food of sustenance during winters, they were also the main offerings to the gods during festivals. Traditional bean Tamale for instance was served to the jaguar deity Texcatlicpoca, the shrimp-based Tamale was meant for Huehueteotl and huitlacoche Tamales made with a powerful fungus that grew on the maize was for the rain god Tlaloc. The dessert Tamale made with honey and bean was reserved for Xipe Totec, a deity of death and rebirth.

So it was a given when the Catholic priest decided to design Las Posadas, the winter festival became their muse, and Tamale, the food that celebrates and unites. This of course was in addition with the buñuelos, that are deep-fried fritters made of flour and dusted with cinnamon sugar, and the Cajeta, which is the Mexican version of the caramel custard and is made with goat milk: two fine dishes that were introduced by the Spanish conquerors and was eventually adopted to the Mexican palate by the cooks here.

Interestingly, when it came to festivity in winters, it was the charm of the masa-based buñuelos that worked the best. Deep-fried and dusted with cinnamon-infused sugar, these cookie-shaped (the earlier version didn’t use a stencil) treats soon became the Mexican peer of the gingerbread cookies elsewhere.

As the years passed, Las Posadas, a community festival, became Christmas for Mexico. And with that, the feast table, which once had a few iconic dishes, grew to represent the Mexican culinary heritage.

(The author is a seasoned chef & a Mexican culinary specialist.)

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox