For most, Christmas Eve marks the beginning of the Christmas celebration.

In the Hispanic community, however, the celebration begins more than a week earlier with the Las Posadas novena. Celebrated mainly in Mexico and the United States, Las Posadas begins Dec. 16 and ends Dec. 24.

This Catholic tradition dates back 400 years and helps the faithful prepare for Christmas by reliving the days Mary and St. Joseph experienced during the journey to Bethlehem.

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The novena, which was first brought to Mexico by Spanish Augustinian friars in the 16th century, begins with a nighttime procession. Participants hold candles, sing Christmas carols and two people portray the roles of Mary and St. Joseph. Those participating typically gather in different homes, each designated as an “inn,” nightly.  Translated, posada means inn. 

Each night the head of the procession holds a candle, and before Mary and St. Joseph are recognized and allowed to enter, the resident, or “innkeeper,” sings a song. The remainder of the participants then enter and gather at the Christmas tree or Nativity to pray the rosary, read Scripture, sing sacred songs and eat a festive meal consisting of Hispanic dishes. Perhaps best of all for the children, there is traditionally a star-shaped piñata at each house, with each of the seven points representing one of the seven deadly sins.

The piñata allows the adults to explain the religious significance of this custom, including that blindfolding the children represents blind faith. The beating of the piñata symbolizes Christians overcoming sin.