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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.