Thursday December 20, 2012

Mary and Joseph set out from Nazareth to walk to Bethlehem. For nine days they travel, looking for a place to stay. Mary is pregnant, in her ninth month, and tired, and they walk slowly in the early nights, looking for some place not too full to give them a floor to sleep on.

And here, at last, a door opens. Here is a place to stay. Here is a house with light spilling out onto the winter grass, and a dinner on the stove -- and children singing Noche de paz, noche de amor to a guitar and maracas playing "Silent night."

For nine days before Christmas, throughout Latin America, families are celebrating la novena navidadeña.

Different countries call the celebration by different names -- it is Las Posadas in Mexico, meaning "places to stay."

What: La Novena Navidadeña, a celebration of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem and the birth of the baby Jesus

Where: American Legion Hall, Route 7, Sheffield

When: Saturday at 6 p.m.

Admission: Free, open to all

"We are all very different people who have come together, with different customs and ways of being," said Alexandra Belalcazar of Great Barrington, "but we are here with the same face."

"It is an hour of God. It is not a festival. It is a saint celebration of the birth of Jesus. Christmas is the birth of the king of the universe."

She and her husband, Luis Fernandez, spoke for their community in the Berkshires, and as part of it.

Among Latinos, the cultural base is Catholicism, she said. In South and Central American countries, people celebrate the nine-day journey -- in Columbia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico. Nine days before Christmas, they begin praying, calling for Jesus to come, and they sing traditional Christmas songs and carols.

She and Fernandez want to pass on this tradition to their children. Here Christmas is celebrated differently, they said, and they wanted their children to know how they had celebrated as children in Colombia.

Maria Quizhpi of Great Barrington, who came to the Berkshires from Ecuador, first celebrated la noveña navidadeña here. Her children and their cousins acted out the New Testament Christmas story, dressed as Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the wise men.

The Rev. John Salatino, pastor at St. Mark Parish in Pittsfield, saw the celebration at her house and encouraged the community to continue the tradition, and under his authority the event has expanded.

Now, families will go from house to house, to a different house each evening. On warm December nights in Colombian towns and cities, families gather with their neighbors, everyone on the block. Here the houses stand farher apart, and snow makes driving more difficult. But when dozens of people come to a small house in the mountains, almost on the Connecticut state line, to sing -- the warmth is tangible.

In Colombia, the celebration begins nine days before Christmas and ends on Christmas eve. On Monday at midnight, people will stand outside, waiting for the beginning of Jesus' birthday, and they will play music and stay up through the night, keeping vigil.

Here, this year, la novena navidadeña will reach its final night on Saturday; it begins early so that the families can be together on Christmas day.

The community will gather in Sheffield at the American Legion Hall, and all are welcome to join them. "God is for all," Fernando said.

The celebration is in its seventh year, he said, and growing.

"Children are always at the center," Belalcazar said. "God says children are like aromatic perfume for their innocence. They have pure, clean hearts."

They may run around and make noise, she said, but they are welcome and praised.

Young girls perform in a Christmas pageant. It is not a competition, Belalcazar eplained.

Each has a banner as the princess of love, of peace, of friendship, of community. And all the children perform with music and dancing they have practiced for more than a month. The girls where white dresses, and their caballeros, the boys who dance with them, wear suits.

"The children radiate peace and happiness," she said, "doing this dance they have practiced, and maybe not doing it perfectly, but it seems perfect when everyone is laughing."

They memorize their parts to re-enact the Bible story of Jesus' birth.

Here is the angel coming to Mary, and Mary pondering these things in her heart.

Here are los reyes magos, the three kings, saying we offer you and holding out their gifts.

"The Shepherds offer their songs," Belalcazar said, "because they are poor."