By Joel Hall
For nine nights in a row, from last Sunday until Christmas Eve, hundreds of Latino Clayton County residents crowded into a tiny Catholic mission on Conley Road in Forest Park to celebrate "Las Posadas."
The Mexican tradition, which commemorates Joseph's and the virgin Mary's cold and difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of shelter, was celebrated at St. Felipe de Jesus Catholic Mission in Forest Park.
The Catholic mission, which falls under the Archdiocese of Atlanta, is the only Mexican Catholic mission in Clayton County and serves over 4,000 Latinos in the surrounding area. While the quaint sanctuary only has seating for about 200 people, some 300 crowded in recently to participate in the celebration every night.
"It's a tradition ... it's part of our faith," said Jorge Arevalo, pastor of the mission. He said that during "Las Posadas," which means the inns, the mission is filled to capacity every night.
During the interactive celebration, members of the mission stand outside and request lodging, while members inside reply, "no vacancy," to illustrate Joseph's and Mary's difficulty in finding a place to stay the night Jesus was born.
Joseph's and Mary's challenge was compounded by the fact that Caesar had ordered all of his subjects to return to their hometowns and pay taxes. The true purpose of the tax was to take a census of the population and discover the location of Jesus, the new king.
Every night, a re-enactment of the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem takes place, followed by different religious readings. Each night's services conclude with a potluck dinner of traditional Mexican foods, such as hot tamales and champurrado -- a warm, chocolate flavored, cornstarch-based drink popular around the holidays.
The end of each night of "Las Posadas" comes with the breaking of a piñata filled with peanuts and spicy Mexican candy for children at the services. The piñata is traditionally shaped like a star, to represent the one that guided the three kings to the newborn Jesus.
For the thousands of immigrants, who attend the mission, the service acts as a way to preserve their Mexican heritage and leads away from the commercialization of Christmas, said mission priest, Jose Duvan-Gonzalez.
"We work very hard in the Hispanic community, because Santa is taking a bigger place in our community, and Jesus is going to another," said Duvan-Gonzalez. "This is the way we try to evangelize the community."
Maria Aguayo, a seven-year mission member, said the celebration also creates a supportive family environment during holidays, when many immigrants are away from their families.
"All my family is back in Mexico, so sometimes it gets lonely," said Aguayo. "Sometimes, I need that support, and here I get that support."