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Continuing a Christmas Ritual

Las Posadas sustains a centuries-old Mexican reenactment of the biblical story

As the light fades on a chilly December evening, a row of luminarias glows against the white facade of the Presidio Chapel of San Elizario. The luminarias, paper bags containing lit candles, outline an adobe museum next to the 140-year-old church and extend around the plaza and on down the streets, giving the night a festive feel.

In the tree-lined plaza, a group of young people in costume gathers next to a gazebo.

This is a dress rehearsal for Las Posadas, which translates as “the inns” and refers to a procession or play that reenacts the biblical story of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus. This telling of the Christmas story originated in 16th-century Mexico and continues there and in cities and towns north of the Rio Grande with musicians and costumed children going from house to house on Christmas Eve.

The Presidio Chapel of San Elizario.

Erich Schlegel

San Elizario, southeast of El Paso, has strong historic ties to Mexico, and the San Elizario Genealogy and Historical Society has staged a mostly annual Las Posadas as part of its Luminarias Festival for some 20 years. Lillian Trujillo, president of the organization, says many of the participants are teens from San Elizario Catholic Church.

“Sometimes we have to talk them into it; they’re shy,” Trujillo says. “We tell them that they don’t have to speak, that it’s just dressing up and walking around.” Older kids and adults sometimes fill in any gaps. For years, the costumes were an assortment of donated and leftover items, but in 2021, the society received enough donations to buy new ones.

As the dress rehearsal wraps up, people spill from the church where Mass has just ended, joining a crowd beneath the trees. Dozens of small children play in the leaves. Customers line up at a food truck at the back of the plaza. Las Posadas begins. Students playing Mary and Joseph—the former perched on a real, live mule—make their way past the steps of the church, the mule’s hooves clopping on the pavement. In the gazebo, Trujillo reads the Christmas story aloud, her voice projected over speakers, as an “innkeeper” at the top of the steps turns the couple away. They continue on to the gazebo, where they settle on bales of hay, and the girl playing Mary pulls a baby doll from under her robe.

Youngsters dressed as wise men step forward to present their gifts: boxes representing gold, frankincense and myrrh. Under a nearby tree, the angels tell those dressed as shepherds the news of the baby’s arrival, and they all make their way into the gazebo to see him. The story is familiar to everyone here.

Las Posadas complete, the players scatter, some pausing to pet the placid mule. In front of the museum, boys and girls from a local folklórico class in traditional dress entertain the crowd with lively dances. Then the youngest kids take turns having a go at a giant piñata. Finally, Santa Claus shows up in a firetruck, sirens blaring and lights flashing, to hand out toys. The night ends with a drawing for bicycles, and every child entered takes home a shiny new bike and helmet, thanks to generous donations.

The community spends weeks preparing for the festival, which is held on the second or third Saturday of December—December 17 this year.

A dazzling dancer at the San Elizario Luminaria Festival.

Erich Schlegel

Folklórico students perform dances that trace their origins to Indigenous peoples of Mexico.

Erich Schlegel

Local families founded the San Elizario Genealogy and Historical Society in 1997 after a conversation at a family reunion about the importance of passing this area’s rich history on to younger generations. Board member Elizabeth Baker-Teran’s parents, Teresa and Miguel Teran, were among the founders. “They wanted to preserve the genealogical history of the families of San Elizario and the historical buildings that are still there and to educate the public about the hundreds of years of history,” Baker-Teran says.

That history includes construction of the presidio chapel by the Spanish for members of the military and their families in 1788. That first chapel flooded in 1829, and another was built to take its place. In 1877, the existing, larger church was built.

Its walls were repainted and the current electric lights installed in the 1950s. The Stations of the Cross on the walls inside date back to about 1918.

The church sits at the center of the community, literally and figuratively. In San Elizario, as in other small towns all along the Rio Grande, church bells once served as a timekeeper, ringing at noon to signal lunch break; when it was time for Mass; and to announce weddings, baptisms and deaths.

San Elizario anchors the El Paso Mission Trail, which includes two other historic missions. The Ysleta Mission, originally built in 1680, is considered the first and oldest mission established in Texas and is the second-oldest continually active Catholic parish in the U.S. The original Socorro Mission was completed in 1691, making it the second-oldest Texas mission; the current building dates to 1843.

Socorro Road, which runs from Ysleta to Socorro to San Elizario, is the designated Mission Trail. The 9-mile route follows a segment of the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Royal Road of the Interior), a trade and supply route that ran from Mexico City to present-day Santa Fe, New Mexico, linking communities, missions and presidios. The oldest road in North America and once the longest, El Camino Real, or what remains of it, was designated as a National Historic Trail in 2000.

A service inside the Presidio Chapel of San Elizario, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Erich Schlegel

Originally, San Elizario, Socorro and Ysleta all sat on the south bank of the Rio
Grande, in what became the country of Mexico. In the 1829 flood, the river cut a new channel, leaving all three churches on the northern bank. When the U.S. declared the deepest channel of the Rio Grande as the international boundary with Mexico in 1848, these communities became part of the U.S.

The Los Portales Museum occupies a circa-1850 building in San Elizario and tells the area’s history. The exhibit room is small but contains a wealth of maps, photos and descriptions of significant events and everyday life in the area. At one point, the town supported a trade in salt from the Guadalupe Mountains.

Local farmers employed a complex irrigation system to grow grapes, pears, onions and wheat, which was ground in a private gristmill.

Trujillo says that for many of the families that attend the Christmas festival, the evening fittingly has been about holiday fun. For Trujillo, whose family has been here since the 1700s, an annual Las Posadas is part of keeping that history alive.