Even the children listened in wide-eyed silence when they heard the first tapping at the door. It was Maria y Jose, the voices sang, and they needed a room where they could await the birth of Maria's baby.
"This is not an inn," the children sang in reply. But they finally relented and invited Maria and Jose to enter with their entourage of angels and shepherds.
The pageant, part of a Hispanic Christmas tradition known as Las Posadas, is performed nightly each year between Dec. 16 and Christmas Eve. This week, members of Washington's Hishpanic community are remaining faithful to tradition and are presenting the Christmas program once again.
Miniature angels in shimmering white-and-gold robes, and tiny shepherds and townspeople dressed in the vivid stripes characteristic of Mexico knelt around Maria and Jose Tuesday at St. Matthew's Cathedral, where they led 50 parents and friends in Spanish Christmas carols. Every night until Christmas, a similar scene will take place at the home of one of the members of the Spanish Catholic Center.
In Spanish-speaking countries around the world, where the religious aspects of Christmas generally dominate the season, the faithful will observe the Mexican tradition by parading through neighborhoods carrying statues of Mary and Joseph, according to the Rev. Sean O'Malley of the center. Then they will knock on neighborhood doors to see if there is room for Mary and Joseph. According to the story, a family finally invites the pilgrims and the entire neighborhood in for caroling and refreshments.
For some of the Spanish-speaking Catholics who gathered at St. Matthew's for the fiesta and a mass offered in Spanish, the scene brought back warm memories.
"My four sisters and five brothers would all come home for Las Posadas," said Gloria Rodriguez of Northwest Washington, who left El Salvador 14 years ago. "We would walk from door to door with Maria and Jose and sing beautiful songs. There would be fireworks and special food and candies. I really miss it."
Alfredo Martinez, an English teacher from Northwest Washington, recalled preparing for Las Posadas for three months, with daily rehearsals of the script and songs.
"There are only two things I miss about Mexico," said Martinez, "the summertime and Las Posadas. This is a very special time there. It's like a national holiday. Everybody is so happy. You eat so much food and then the children break a pinata."
Some of the Hispanos said they tried to uphold their family Christmas traditions here with their children, but with little success.
"When I was a boy, we got our presents on January 6th [the Feast of the Epiphany]," said Martinez. "We were told they were from the three kings . . . . But we're really American now. We have a big tree and my children write letters to Santa Claus and wake up at midnight Christmas Eve to see what he brought."
Like Martinez, many of the Hispanos interviewed said they have Christmas trees and give their children gifts in the name of Santa Claus and not the infant Jesus or the three kings, as was the custom when they were children in their homelands. But, most said, Santa Claus and the Christmas tree still take a back seat to the Nativity scenes that dominate the Christmas decorations in their homes.
Some, like the Rodriguez family, said they make a yearly ritual of placing the Christ child in the manger exactly at midnight on Christmas Eve. Others, like Asuncion Moreno, make an effort to teach their children traditional Christmas carols and to make the old-time delicacies.
But unlike their American neighbors, most of the Spanish-speaking immigrants interviewed said that just as it was in the old country, the highlight if their Christmas celebration will be Christmas Eve, when relatives will assemble from all over the East Coast for the traditional turkey dinner, followed by attendance at midnight mass.