December 24th, 2012
10:44 PM ET
By Arielle Hawkins, CNN
Silver Spring, Maryland (CNN) - Guitars strummed and the cheerful voices of young and old sang “Feliz Navidad” as people in the streets cheered the birth of Christ with Spanish lyrics and upbeat rhythms in Oakview, a neighborhood in Silver Spring.
Though it wasn’t immediately apparent, these members of St. Camillus Church weren’t caroling, but were celebrating the Central American Catholic tradition of Las Posadas. The celebration comes just as the world celebrates the birth of Jesus on Tuesday.
The religious event commemorates the grueling journey of the Virgin Mary and Joseph as they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of a haven to give birth to their son. This year, St. Camillus celebrated the Christmas tradition Friday through Sunday.
The nativity story narrates how the Virgin Mary and her husband were turned away from inn after inn until a kind man allowed them to rest their heads in a barn. The word “posada” translates to “inn” or “lodging” in English.
Usually, members of a congregation march through the community to a preselected home, where they re-enact the dialogue between Joseph and the innkeepers as he tries to find lodging for his growing family. St. Camillus’ procession, however, visited four houses.
“Usually with this celebration, the procession goes to one house a night,” said Father Michael Johnson, pastor of St. Camillus. “But because our community is so large, we try to accommodate because everyone wants to participate.”
A different St. Camillus organization was responsible for organizing the procession each night of the celebration. Cristo Joven, the church’s youth group, which caters to members 18 to 33 years old, organized Sunday’s procession.
Between 25 and 30 congregants met in the church lobby around 7 p.m., and a young woman and man dressed as Mary and Joseph led the procession to the first home. Yellow balls of light from flashlights and candles danced along the street, guiding the way as participants sang of the ringing bells in Bethlehem welcoming the Messiah.
Mary and Joseph lined up under the red and green strands of Christmas lights lining the porch of the first home. The group divided to sing “La canción para pedir posadas,” with half of the congregants outside on the deck and the others inside. The interactive song represents the conversation between Joseph and the inn owners, with the father of the unborn savior requesting shelter as those inside deny it.
The group outside initiated:
En el nombre del cielo, [In the name of the heavens,]
Faintly, behind closed doors and through cracked windows, came the voices of the innkeepers inside.
Aquí no es mesón, [This is not an inn,]
It is not until the group outside sang the magic words that they were allowed entry.
Mi esposa es María, [My wife is Mary,]
They then all sang in unison:
Dichosa la casa [Happy is the house]
As the song concluded, the owners of the home welcomed everyone in. The sweet aroma of desserts filled the air as congregants filed into the foyer. Parishioners read scriptures in Spanish from the books of Mark and Luke and gave prayers for families. Father Michael blessed the home.
People laughed and chatted as they sipped hot chocolate before venturing back into the cold to march to the next house. Families joined the procession from adjoining streets, left and right, until roughly 60 people were on the lawn of the second dwelling.
This was repeated three times, and the songs grew louder as more voices joined the ranks. Different Scriptures were read describing the lives of those touched by the first Christmas and of those in need whom we must remember during the holiday. Faces were illuminated next to decorative reindeer and inflatable snow men. Homeowners offered steaming spiced tea, tamales and cuisine from the Dominican Republic.
After prayers were said, people called out their favorite villancicos, or Christmas carols. With two guitars, a snare drum, bongos, a güiro and speakers, they sang "La cancion del tamborillero" (“The Little Drummer Boy”), “Noche de Paz” (“Silent Night”) and other favorites.
The 12-block excursion took roughly two hours, on a cold night when parents still had to wrap gifts, cook Christmas dinner and go to work the next morning. Regardless of the long to-do lists, people didn't eye their watches or check their phones, but instead enjoyed the moment.
“It’s a way for the church to come together, celebrate and reconnect with our traditions,” said Ingrid Garcia, a member of Cristo Joven.
About half of St. Camillus’ congregation, of 5,800 members, is Central American. Roughly 100 countries around the world are represented among the parish, Father Michael said.
The church is not alone in its diverse congregation. Similar statistics are reflected throughout of the rest of the United States.
Latinos have accounted for 71% of the growth of the Catholic Church within the country since 1960, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Latinos also make up more than 35% of American Catholics.
In addition to having a multicultural congregation, St. Camillus has a young population with an average age of less than 40 years old, Father Michael said. “A lot of children were born here, but their parents were born in other countries. This is a way to pass on the traditions and teach the children the songs,” he explained.
Congregants of this church recognize the value of instilling faith in the younger generations.
Religious affiliation tends to be strong among foreign-born Latinos in the United States. Roughly 70% identify as Catholic, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2012. That number drops to 59%, however, among the second generation and falls still lower to 40% among their immediate descendants.
Whether it’s a conscious decision to educate younger generations of cultural and religious traditions, or simply a celebration of a beloved holiday, Las Posadas has attracted St. Camillus’ congregants in large numbers for more than 15 years.
“We just get together to talk about Jesus and celebrate him, and it’s actually a really nice experience,” said Danny J., a Cristo Joven member.
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