For Catholic Latinos, the Christmas season means not just one or two nights of celebration and prayer, but several. The unofficial start for many Latinos is Dec. 8, a holiday that honors the Virgin Mary.
And while customs vary from country to country, some have crossed borders and become beloved to many across the diaspora.
For nine evenings each December, the parishioners of St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church take to the streets of Buena Park to ask their neighbors for shelter.
“It’s a beautiful sharing of culture and even for, I think, our immigrant community that often feels truly not welcome like Joseph and Mary to see other people who are not of our culture opening their doors for a Mexican tradition,” says St. Mary of the Lake’s Father Manny Dorantes. “It just shows how our faith is able to transcend culture and this beautiful sharing happens, which is what we call community.”
The parishioners are observing Las Posadas, a Catholic tradition that commemorates the journey Joseph and Mary made as they sought a refuge where Mary could give birth to the Christ child. The tradition originated in Mexico as a way for the Catholic Church to evangelize to indigenous peoples. Las Posadas are observed in Mexico with a procession led by parishioners dressed as Mary and Joseph visiting homes designated as inns, or posadas. The St. Mary of the Lake parish adapted the tradition with a procession through the church’s neighborhood.
“We knock on a neighbor’s door and then we ask, in God’s name, reliving what Joseph did, would you give shelter to Mary? And then there’s a response from inside the home, they’re like, ‘go away, don’t bother us’ which is exactly what [Joseph and Mary] lived.”
The procession ends when the pilgrims are welcomed inside, and a celebration begins.
One beloved element of that celebration is a steaming pot of homemade ponche bursting with the flavors of Mexico in December – cinnamon, guava, and the crabapple-like tejocote. At St. Mary of the Lake, the ponche is made by the Esparza family.
The Esparzas have been St. Mary of the Lake parishioners for more than 40 years. Consuelo Esparza learned how to make ponche in her native Mexico.
“I remember the flavor when my grandma made the ponche, I was maybe seven years old when I started making the ponche,” Consuelo recalls. “And now my grandsons, they love the ponche!”
Consuelo Esparza has passed the family recipe on to her daughter Aileen to carry on the tradition.
“Even though I was born here, my son was born here, they still enjoy this tradition,” Aileen said. “It’s something that everybody looks forward to.”
Fr. Dorantes says the St. Mary of the Lake parish, which combined with St. Lourdes earlier this year, is excited to come together once again after taking 2020 off due to the ongoing pandemic.
“We have one of the most diverse Catholic parishes in the archdiocese of Chicago. We have people from Africa, from Asia, from Latin America, and now our young white urban professionals that are moving into the neighborhood,” says Dorantes. “What I have found is that the community here in Buena Park is rather open to all the traditions and the richness of our culture and our faith, and I think these traditions of Christmas and in preparation for Christmas allow us to come together precisely to remember that we do belong to one another, that we are sisters and brothers, that you just didn’t live the isolation yourself, I lived it too right? And coming together once again to recognize the beauty and the dignity of human life as we enter into these conversations and celebrations with one another.”
St. Mary of the Lake welcomes all who would like to join services throughout the Christmas season.