Back to previous page


Post Most

For Hispanics, rituals leading to Christmas preserve their Latin American traditions

By Luz Lazo,

Monday night — Christmas Eve or, for many families in the Washington area and beyond, Nochebuena — is the centerpiece of the Latino holiday season. Across the region, however, the celebrations are already well underway.

That’s why, on Friday night, Neris Torres stood outside her Petworth rowhouse with her priest and a guitar player, waiting for friends and relatives to knock on the door and start the posada, a reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s quest for shelter in Bethlehem.

In the Washington area, home to nearly 800,000 Hispanics, the posada and other traditions mean long lines Sunday at stores selling ingredients for tamales, lechon and gallina rellena; a display of international Christmas trees at the Church of the Holy Family in Dale City; and live Nativity scenes at homes and churches across the region during the nine days before Christmas.

“A lot of the traditions have vanished over the years, but we try to keep them alive,” said Torres, 52, a devout Catholic who moved to the area 34 years ago.

Torres and her family and friends are to gather Monday night to celebrate Christmas Eve at her home decorated with portraits of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and a patron saint from their native El Salvador by the door. Since Friday’s posada, they have moved on to religious services Saturday and a Sunday Mass; Monday morning was reserved for cooking.

Such events add “a lively touch to the Christmas season,” said the Rev. Alex Diaz of the Church of the Holy Family. In addition to the religious component, he said, they help maintain cultural habits and idiosyncrasies some immigrant families forgo in the United States.

Germantown resident Cindy Lantigua-Hernandez and her family have assembled ingredients for a meal that will feature Dominican, Salvadoran, Mexican and American dishes.

“I will cook for an army, because we will eat all night long,” she said.

“My mom always says that you cook extra in case that unexpected person shows up,” said Lantigua-Hernandez, a District native with a Salvadoran father and a Dominican mother.

Married to a Mexican American, Lantigua-Hernandez’s Christmas Eve dinner will incorporate flavors from multiple countries. This year a Dominican-style lechon — a roast pig — is the main course, Mexican flan and American pies and puddings the desserts.

Torres remembers Chrismases in her native village of Intipuca, where neighbors sang carols door-to-door as they reenacted Mary and Joseph’s journey. At her District home, participants — many who were parishioners from Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Columbia Heights — sang outside as they asked for shelter while men, women and children inside replied in song.

The event required hours of preparations: Torres fed 50 at Friday’s ritual, cooking 10 pounds of white rice, a turkey, and gallina rellena, or stuffed chicken. It also offered a chance to experience traditions to many who had never participated in a posada, she said.

“It was different back in El Salvador, where we would visit more than one house and sang Christmas carols all along,” recalls Carmen Berrios, 39, Torres’s youngest sister. “We can’t do all of that here, but we try.”

On Monday night, Berrios said, there won’t be fireworks like she recalled in their hometown. Still, the night was expected to be lively, the house crowded with American-born children and grandchildren wearing new outfits like their parents once did. An evening Mass, dancing, Salvadoran tamales and rich hot chocolate were part of the plan.

“It will be a long night,” she said.

© The Washington Post Company