Christmas in Oaxaca: Teotitlan del Valle Posadas

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For nine days and nights leading up to Christmas eve, the Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico recreates the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.  Each night they sleep on the road, which means they arrive at the home of a host family who welcomes them to their courtyard, then altar room, filled with copal incense and prayers.

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There is a huge feast for invited guests:  tamales, roasted beef or pork, homemade tortillas, wild turkey called guacalote.  I can smell the charcoal cook fires from a distance.

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The villagers gather at the front gate.  Hosts distribute tamales and atole (women have been cooking for days), men sip beer and mezcal, children blow whistles. The celebration is grand, festive.  Then, at around 6:30 p.m. the procession leaves the host home and passes through the streets of village, up hills, through narrow alleyways, from one side to the other,  until they come to the home of the next night’s host family and the celebration continues.

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It is both solemn and celebratory.  Women, men and children are selected by each host family to do the honors of leading the procession and light the way with handmade beeswax candles decorated with beeswax flowers, birds, and glittering pendants.  Followers cover their heads in scarves as if in church. 

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The men who handle the fireworks and shooting rockets are out in front to guide the way with sight and sound.  From all corners of the village we can hear them until late at night, and then again in the morning as a wake up call.  I arise at six to the blast of a rocket. Behind the fireworks are the altar boys carrying crosses, then four young women carry the palanquin of Mary and Joseph.

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On this night, our procession must have picked up more than 300 people along the way as the route passed through every corner of the village and ended at a home not more than two blocks from the one we had left.

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Up hill and down, across cobbled streets, we picked our, way careful of potholes and uneven stones and construction materials.  The streets were swept clean and watered so there would be no dust for us.  We must have walked three miles at a steady shuffle.

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Those who didn’t process waited in doorways.  The older people who had difficulty walking made it part of the way and then dropped off, as did the parents carrying sleeping babes on their shoulders, and holding toddlers by their hands.

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On the night of December 24, the baby Jesus appears in the altar room of the host family for La Ultima Posada — the last procession.  This is the biggest party of them all and it will continue through the night and into the morning.

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Visitors are welcome to join the procession.  You can spend the night at Las Granadas B&B or at Casa Elena, both excellent establishments.  You can start out having comida at Las Granadas prepared by Josefina and then end the night with a glass of wine or a cup of mezcal!

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A Word About Night Photography

It is difficult!  In the ideal world, one would use a tripod to hold the camera steady, avoid flash, use manual settings on your camera to manipulate the shutter speed, aperture, and film speed/ISO.  That means constantly changing settings for various lighting situations.  In very dark situations, like during this posada on streets barely illuminated, one gets a golden glow.  I also turned off the automatic focus setting on my camera and lens and used manual focus.  The lens has a hard time reading light and will not focus otherwise.  With my bad eyes and very low light, that meant guessing, which is why many of my photos were blurry.  Those you see here have a warm, golden glow typical of low light, night photography using a hand-held camera.  I was able to adjust some of the photos using Lightroom photo editing software.  We teach all this in our Oaxaca Cultural Navigator photography workshops.  We learn about the camera and immerse ourselves in the indigenous culture, too.

4 Responses to Christmas in Oaxaca: Teotitlan del Valle Posadas

  1. I first participated in this lovely event in 1975, and it remains magical, despite the coming of electricity to the village.

    By the way, guajalote is spelled this way, altho it indeed sound like a C in the middle.

    Feliz navidad!

  2. This is beautiful. I was fortunate to be able to attend a posada on Friday evening here in Portland. None of the color, but a baby Jesus carried by a group who came to the apartment I was in and they were very joyful. They sang outside, we responded inside and finally they came in and we all sang together. The three of us non-Mexicans presented The Twelve Days of Christmas and Silent Night to them in Spanish – they sang along and we joined them in their customary carols (we had songbooks). Then came the homemade quesadillas and horchata. We had brought homemade cookies. Throughout it all their children played and laughed on the living room floor of the humble apartment. It was wonderful to speak Spanish (many of the women spoke no English, even after 9 years in the US.). I was reminded of why I love being with Mexican women and it renewed my intent to find volunteer work within this community. They invited me to their church tonight – they will be processing from the apartments with the baby Jesus to the iglesia.

    • Wow, Claudia, what a wonderful experience you are having. It is a special gift to be able to share this event which is so non-commercialized and heartfelt. Entertainment comes in many forms, and this is one of the purest. Feliz Navidad to you and your family and extended family.

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