Mary and Joseph sought lodging on a dark, chilly night. There was no room at the inn, so they proceeded along South Main Street, led by angles.
People bearing candles lined the 10-block route to a manger — not in Bethlehem but in Frontier Park on the bank of the Missouri River. The Lewis and Clark Fife and Drum Corps played “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” followed by a host of other faith-based Christmas carols.
For 45 years St. Charles has hosted Las Posadas, a reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging before Jesus’ birth. The tradition has Spanish roots, dating to the 16th century.
The non-denominational event sponsored by several St. Charles area churches, individuals and community organizations included readings of the Gospel story of the birth of Jesus and carols for all to sing. It’s one of only a handful of similar community-led Las Posadas traditions in the country. Several St. Charles-area Catholics are involved, including Deacon Frank Olmsted of St. Cletus Parish, who was the narrator, and St. Cletus parishioners Jimmy and Maddy Spraul and their 4-month-old, Jack, who portrayed the Holy Family.
It’s the second time the Sprauls were honored to portray the Holy Family, the first time after their daughter Mary Grace was born. “We’re a Catholic family, so it’s very important,” Maddy Spraul said. “I can’t wait for them to be old enough to realize the importance of this event.”
Las Posadas is the meaning of Christmas — Jesus’ birthday, she said. “There would be no Christmas without Jesus.”
Her husband, Jimmy, who portrayed St. Joseph, said “it’s interesting to see the way it would have been for the Holy Family trying to find a room. It’s just people shutting the door in their face. Nobody would have cared then, but you can see from the people following you in the Las Posadas procession how much it means to people nowadays. It’s a big perspective flip.”
Mary DuBois, a St. Charles Borromeo parishioner and part-time secretary there who has been involved in the Las Posadas since about 2000, was one of the characters in the procession. Taking part “is a way of giving witness to your faith,” she said. “Christmas is so often strictly the commercial thing. People don’t always stop and think about the reason we have Christmas in the first place, the birth of Jesus,” she said.
DuBois enjoys seeing the smiling faces of the people in the candlelight who line up to watch the reenactment. “It’s a feeling of community, people all giving praise to God together,” DuBois said.
Mary Olmsted has been involved in Las Posadas with her husband, Deacon Olmsted, for many years, even including their daughter in the past. “It’s become part of our family, a good way to celebrate the Christmas season with so much commercialism,” she said. “The true meaning of Christmas sometimes is lost. So we just try to make folks aware of what it’s all about.”
She called it an appropriate way to start off the Advent season, a high point of Christmas preparations.
Several hundred people crowded around the makeshift manger in the park. “That’s my grandson,” shouted Victoria Kukielski, a parishioner of St. Francis de Sales Oratory, who had a spot along the side of the pavilion. She praised the Las Posadas committee for reminding attendees of the real meaning of Christmas. And she was thrilled to watch her five grandchildren who took part, including one, Joe Schuepfer, who was the Little Drummer Boy. Deacon Olmsted, on the pavilion in his role as narrator, said that “much like the young drummer boy, we all have talents and gifts to give.”
Lisa Larkin, a parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo Parish who came with her husband and daughter to watch, called Las Posadas a family tradition. She senses that faith-based events in the community are fewer in recent years, but she’s glad this one continues. Standing next to her and adjacent to one of the live animals in the scene was Laura Phillips, a parishioner of St. Monica in Creve Coeur. Phillips enjoyed the up-close view. “I had never seen this before and always wanted to,” she said. “It’s nice to have a faith-based activity, especially at the start of Advent.”
Deacon Olmsted joked that he can claim he gave the homily at the wedding of the parents of Jesus. He didn’t have to work hard to convince the Sprauls to volunteer, and he praised them and the others who took part. There’s always a little chaos just prior to the start of the Las Posadas, but the director, Kathryn Byrd, keeps her cool, said Deacon Olmstead, a member of the Las Posadas committee. Another key helper he cited is Rev. Doug Hon of Main Street Church, who lends space in his church for the costuming and preparations for Las Posadas.
Chris Goellner, chairman and treasurer of the Las Posadas Committee and a St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parishioner, noted that “this is a great way to kick off the holiday season. We’re very fortunate we can keep it going. It’s amazing how many people are a part of this.”
>> Las Posadas tradition
Posada translates to “dwelling” or “lodging.” Celebrated in Mexico and in Spanish-speaking segments of the United States in December, Las Posadas celebrates Joseph and Mary’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of a place for Baby Jesus to be born.
Las Posadas’ origins trace to Spain, perhaps arising from a novena that began on Dec. 16 and concluded on Christmas. In Avila, Spain, in 1580, St. John of the Cross led a Holy Family procession through the halls of a Carmelite convent seeking lodging for Mary and Joseph.
Franciscan and Augustinian Catholic priests brought the tradition to Central America and Mexico in the 1600s, with a procession of the Holy Family through the streets of the towns seeking lodging at house after house and finally finding shelter at the parish church.
In Mexico, Las Posadas came to be celebrated as the procession repeated for nine consecutive evenings. On the first eight evenings, the procession ended at someone’s home with prayers around a Nativity scene, and the children breaking open a piñata. On the ninth evening, Christmas Eve, the procession was completed at the parish church with the celebration of Midnight Mass.
St. Charles has one of the few Las Posadas in the United States that is presented by the wider community for the greater community. It began in the late 1970s with some of the South Main merchants dressing up as Mary and Joseph, and shepherds with a small procession of some dozens of people down Main Street. Today the procession includes caroling groups and the Lewis and Clark Fife and Drum Corps in addition to the Holy Family.
Historic Main Street is typically lined with several thousand people, many holding lighted candles to welcome Mary and Joseph; the people then follow the Holy Family into the park where the Christmas story from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are read, carols are sung by the St. Charles Christmas Tradition caroling groups, and the birth of Jesus occurs.
Today, the St. Charles Las Posadas is led by a nonprofit group. Donations pay for various expenses. For information on assisting the effort, contact Chris Goellner at [email protected].
Source: Deacon Frank Olmsted