Take a minute and think back to your favorite childhood winter holiday traditions.
Maybe it was decorating the Christmas tree.
Perhaps you loved putting a gingerbread house together.
Or maybe you thought opening presents was the best part of the Christmas holidays.
My personal favorite tradition was driving to see the Christmas lights in a nearby city, where the residents went all out with the decorations. We’d drive over and check out the sights, including a gorgeous lighted fountain in the middle of a lake—with the Christmas carols cranked up, of course!
For the people of Latin America—and some Hispanic communities within the United States—any collection of favorite Christmas memories will undoubtedly include las posadas.
Christmas-tastic Fun: Las Posadas Activities for the Spanish Classroom
First and foremost, not everyone celebrates las posadas. It’s most prevalent in Mexico and Guatemala, and is celebrated in other Latin American countries to a varying degree. But it’s not something that many Spaniards celebrate.
So don’t feel bad if it’s a new concept to you, the Spanish teacher, as well!
Just what are las posadas exactly?
The term las posadas, literally meaning “lodgings” or “accommodations” in Spanish, refers to the reenactment of the story of Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to spend the night before the Baby Jesus was born.
The festivities last nine nights, from December 16th to Christmas Eve, representing the nine months of gestation of the Baby Jesus or, alternately, the nine days’ journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
During the celebration, “Mary” and “Joseph” go from house to house seeking refuge. They sing a traditional song in which they ask for posada, or a place to stay. They’re turned away—also in song—at first (usually, they’re rejected at two houses before being accepted into the third), until at last they’re offered food and shelter.
The song then becomes joyful, a celebration of the good fortune the family will receive for inviting Mary and Joseph into their home, and food is distributed. Sometimes it’s churros and punch, sometimes tamales, sometimes just treat bags full of candy, oranges and peanuts for the children. Finally, a piñata is broken.
There are variations on this general model—in some places, real people play Mary and Joseph, walking or riding a donkey, whereas in others children or adults carry statues of the saints—but in general, a posada includes four key elements:
- A piñata
Interesting, right? Read further to learn how to take these four elements and make an awesome Spanish lesson this Christmas holiday.
Why Teach Las Posadas?
Bringing this tradition into your classroom is a fun way to teach language and culture. Integrating holidays into the Spanish classroom provides the perfect opportunity for teaching new vocabulary related to cultural-specific themes. It also brings some Christmas spirit to the classroom, strengthening the bond between teacher and student.
Neuroscience tells us that the brain loves novelty; people learn best when they’re doing something different from the same old hum-drum routine. Holiday celebrations fit the bill perfectly, capturing students’ attention and helping them retain new information by doing something they enjoy.
Because the celebration of las posadas is primarily a religious observance, unless teachers work in a religious school, they’ll need to be careful to approach the instruction from a cultural perspective. It might be a good idea to talk with students (or send a note home, if you teach children) before beginning a posadas unit explaining why it’s such an important way to teach culture, a vital aspect of foreign language instruction.
What’s more, holiday traditions are at the heart of any culture. In the current political atmosphere of fear and suspicion toward immigrants, it’s especially important to elevate Hispanic culture to the level of academic instruction—especially if you’re a Spanish teacher in the United States. Teaching about real Hispanic kids’ Christmas celebrations humanizes Spanish-speakers for American students and makes them see that immigrants aren’t so different from them after all.
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Useful Materials for Teaching Las Posadas
There are some wonderful resources online for teaching las posadas. Scholastic offers a free elementary lesson plan, as well as a fully-planned social studies unit for the same age range covering las posadas history and symbols.
There are many teacher-created resources available at TeachersPayTeachers, including:
- Bilingual minibooks for explaining the holiday in English and Spanish.
- Puppet patterns are great for capturing the attention of younger students.
- A las posadas resource and activities packet goes a little more in depth in describing the holiday.
You can use these resources in your class by having your students answer the questions in Spanish. Also, feel free to use the activities packet for older students as well—you could even use it to spark a discussion where they compare their own winter traditions to las posadas.
And if you haven’t already, consider adding FluentU to your curriculum. Great for teaching las posadas and more, FluentU allows you to teach Spanish students using current events and pop culture.
Activities for Teaching Las Posadas
Now that we’ve covered the basics, it’s time to explore different ways to teach this fun and exciting time of the year.
Read the Story of Las Posadas to Your Students
Tomie dePaola’s beautiful picture book “The Night of Las Posadas” provides a nice introduction to the subject. Though this tale of a miraculous New Mexico posada is a children’s book, it would be of interest to students of any age. There’s even a video read-aloud available on YouTube, which is great for boosting listening and challenging more proficient learners.
Have Students Read Other Las Posadas-related Books
Apart from Tomie de Paola’s “Night of Las Posadas,” there are many other lovely books on the subject, all appropriate for elementary school and beyond.
Here are some of my favorite books to teach las posadas to Spanish learners.
- “Nine Days to Christmas: A Story of Mexico” by Marie Hall Ets and Aurora Labastida: This 1960 Caldecott Award winner by Marie Hall Ets is a classic Christmas story about a little Mexican girl, Ceci, who’s excited about leading the candlelit procession and picking out her own piñata.
- “Las Posadas: An Hispanic Christmas Celebration” by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith and Lawrence Migdale: This book is a photo essay about 11-year-old Kristen Lucero and her family as they prepare for las posadas in their New Mexico community. It includes full lyrics and music for “The Song of Las Posadas,” as well as a recipe for traditional bizcochitos.
- “Las Posadas” (Bilingual Edition) by Jennifer Blizin Gillis: This short, simple book (24 pages) provides an introduction to the posadas for very young children. It has short sentences and full-color photographs to draw in younger readers.
- “Too Many Tamales” by Gary Soto and Ed Martinez: In a story told with warmth and humor by award-winning author Gary Soto and illustrator Ed Martinez, Maria decides to try on her mother’s ring. When it disappears, she believes it must be inside one of the tamales. The only solution… to eat their way to the ring!
- “The Legend of the Poinsettia” by Tomie dePaola: The author’s vibrant illustrations highlight this lovely story of family cooperation and unselfishness (and a little magic); a holiday classic, this is the book referenced in the Scholastic lesson plan above.
- “The Christmas Gift/El regalo de Navidad” (Bilingual Edition) by Francisco Jiménez and Claire B. Cotts: In this touching story (a fictionalized account of an event in the life of the author, whose parents were migrant workers), Panchito learns the true meaning of Christmas. The book is gorgeously illustrated by Claire B. Cotts and has the text in both languages.
- “Miracle of the First Poinsettia: A Mexican Christmas Story” by Joanne Oppenheim and Fabian Negrin: A heartwarming retelling of the legend of the first poinsettia flower, this book by award-winning author Joanne Oppenheim features protagonist Nita, a little girl who lives in a small mountain town in Mexico. Though she worries about not having money to buy her father a gift, she soon learns that the most important Christmas treasures aren’t bought and sold. The book includes striking illustrations by Latino artist Fabian Negrin.
These books are great for two reasons: You can introduce basic vocabulary to low-level learners, and you can hold Spanish discussions with upper-level students after going over the short stories with them. And the bilingual books are perfect for Spanish reading comprehension activities.
Sing Villancicos (Christmas Carols)
Christmas carols (villancicos) are an integral part of the posada experience. These are perfect for teaching uncommon vocabulary. Teachers can go over the song lyrics of the traditional posada song with students, providing the text in English and Spanish, then have students make a booklet with the words to the songs, accompanied by their own illustrations. Students can also practice singing along with this Las Posadas video.
Spanish teachers may wish to have students may participate in a school pageant or Christmas show by singing some songs in Spanish. With prior permission, they might also have students go caroling through the hallways of the school. These activities provide an opportunity for students to showcase their learning and to share Hispanic culture with others in the larger school setting.
Piñatas are always a fun way to connect to Latin American culture, and given that piñatas are a key facet of the posada experience, a piñata-making project would be a perfect addition to any classroom study of las posadas. Teachers should be sure to address the piñata’s original significance; the seven picos, or points, of the star represented the seven deadly sins, and the demolition of the star symbolized the individual’s triumph over temptation.
Teachers may choose a few piñatas to break (I recommend doing this outside!) while singing the traditional song (“¡Dale, Dale, Dale!”) for piñata-breaking in Latin America.
Hold a Potluck
A class potluck featuring traditional foods works well as a culminating event for a unit on las posadas. This is a great way to introduce vocabulary, spark conversation and teach students more about Latin American culture. Just be sure and remind students to include a list of ingredients for each dish, in case of allergies.
Some traditional Christmas foods include:
- Tamales: cornbread in either meat- and cheese- or fruit-filled varieties.
- Churros: strips of fried dough dusted with sugar and cinnamon.
- Fruit punch: made with exotic fruits like guavas, tamarind, and tejocotes. This recipe may necessitate a trip to an ethnic grocery store.
- Atole: a hot cornmeal-based drink similar to hot chocolate.
- Sweetbread: there are many varieties of these pastries, including some in bright colors, others shaped like seashells and even some called marranitos in the shape of little pigs!
Teachers may also want to bring in traditional candies including pepitoria (peanut brittle), cocadas (coconut candy) and cajeta (caramel).
Play a Game: ¿Qué Soy? (What Am I?)
In this game, students are divided into pairs. One student sticks a card with posada-related vocabulary on his or her forehead, the partner has to describe what’s on the card, and students try to guess the person or object that’s being described.
Posada-related vocabulary includes terms like:
- La Virgen María (the Virgin Mary)
- San José (Saint Joseph)
- El niño Jesús (the Baby Jesus)
- Los reyes magos (the three Wise Men)
- Los pastores (the shepherds)
- El Rosario (the Rosary)
- La piñata
- El ponche (punch)
Create a Nacimiento (Nativity Scene)
Teachers may want students to make a nacimiento (nativity scene) from clay or other materials.
Traditional Mexican nacimientos include a wide variety of characters, not just the standard manger scene; it’s not uncommon to see the devil himself, as well as domestic animals like pigs and cows. Teachers could have each child make a small scene, or they may choose to have each member of the class contribute a figure for a full-class nacimiento, complete with scenery (greenery, aluminum foil river, etc.) as the Mexicans do in their homes.
Once the nativity scene is completed, have students give a brief description of each character in Spanish.
In conclusion, teaching las posadas is a fun way to incorporate language and culture instruction into the Spanish classroom. And students may just create some special memories of the holiday season to look back on and cherish for years to come.
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