There are many ways to let in the spirit of Christmas. Perhaps one of the best ways is to perform in or watch a Christmas play in person. It’s good for the soul to step away from the darkness and pettiness of the world and instead focus on the truer meaning of this time of year: Good will. The longtime local favorite Christmas play “Los Pastores,” which revolves around the shepherds’ journey to Bethlehem in search of the baby Jesus, delivers on good will; as does Mary and Joseph’s arduous search for shelter and food as brought to life in Las Posadas.
This time-honored Hispanic folk drama/ musical about the shepherds’ pilgrimage to honor the Christ Child is a reminder that good always triumphs over evil. This traditional play depicts Lucifer as the persistent interrupter and unsuccessful wicked influence who tries to impede the shepherds’ quest.
It is considered to be one of the most musical of all the morality plays from the 16th century. This tale of poetic lines is intertwined with abundant music performed in Spanish, actually 16th-century Spanish with pantomime so everyone can understand.
“Many people who lived in Northern New Mexico at that time were farmers and shepherds themselves,” Enrique Lamadrid, a cultural historian and professor from the University of New Mexico told The Taos News. “So it was easy for them to identify themselves with the characters of the play and their struggles.”
'Los Pastores' in Taos
Arsenio Córdova and his family (his wife, Kathy and daughter, Tessa) know this play well. They have been at the heart of its presentation for the last 37 years through their El Prado-based company, Sangre de Cristo Liturgies.
“The play was presented in early times so that people would understand good will always win over evil,” Córdova explained. “This is illustrated by the fight between Michael the Archangel who defeated Lucifer and then people go on to worship the Christ child (Santo Niño).”
Over the years, “Los Pastores” has become a community- and family-favorite event. Córdova’s mother, Josephine, influenced his desire to put on the first musical play here in 1980 and, in part, her spirit is why he continues. As an educator, Josephine put on the play at El Prado and Arroyo Seco elementary schools decades ago with the students and their parents playing the parts.
It is very commonplace for the actors to repeat their roles year after year. Many returning actors who have grown into and out of roles take on new ones. Filling characters that others have grown out of is never a problem. Córdova, however, never turns walk-in actors away; the stage can always take one more shepherd.
Though Córdova has kept true to the “Los Pastores” script, he has also made a few alterations over the years. It’s a mixture of the most common versions of the play throughout its history, but he sometimes tries to modernize it with references to local issues such as gambling, for example.
In the original play, the characters of Mary and Joseph didn’t utter a word, but he composed a song in which they welcome the shepherds. He also added “Pastorcitos de Judea,” a Spanish villancico or Christmas song that he heard while in Mexico.
The play, Córdova believes, probably originated in Spain brought to Mexico by missionaries. He feels that around 1531 was most likely the first staging of it in Mexico. He has researched the many variations of this play from Spain to Mexico, even traveling to Spain to look at some of the earliest scripts.
“Los Pastores” is considered to be one of the most musical of all the morality plays from the 16th century.
Some of the songs still sung today are very old, but there are also several pieces that Córdova composed for the play, including lullabies sung by Mary and Joseph to baby Jesus.
His music has traveled far beyond Taos. When Pope John Paul II died, a rendition of Córdova’s song, “Que los angeles te lleven al paraiso” (“May the Angels Lead You to Paradise”), was played at his funeral.
Another popular community tradition is Las Posadas, meaning the “inns” or the “shelters.” It is a religious celebration and re-enactment of Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem and their search for lodging as the impending birth of Christ nears. It is performed for nine consecutive nights (Dec. 15-24) before Christmas.
The participants are divided into two groups, those looking for shelter with Mary and Joseph (los posadistas) and the innkeepers, or posaderos, who turn them away saying, “Aquí no es mesón, sigan adelante. Yo no debo abrir, no sea algún tunante” (“This is not an inn, so you must keep going. I cannot open; you may be a rogue.”) Finally, on the last night of knocking on doors, they are finally welcomed at “la posada,” the home that opens its doors and offers food and shelter. The thoughtful posadero then sings to Mary and Joseph, “¿Eres tú, José? ¿Tu esposa es María? Entren, peregrinos, no los conocia” (“Are you Joseph? Is your wife Mary? Come in, pilgrims; I didn’t recognize you.”)
This beautiful, moving pageant that is open to public spectating typically commences at dusk each night and follows a planned route — just look for small, flickering flames and flashlight beams, and listen for the music. The final posada is on Dec. 24 and concludes with the Midnight Mass at San Francisco de Asís Church located at 60 St. Francis Plaza in Ranchos de Taos.
Larry Torres, a University of New Mexico-Taos professor, distinguished scholar and ordained deacon, has been leading Las Posadas at the Holy Trinity Parish in Arroyo Seco for more than 30 years. He also wrote “Las Posadas, a Hispanic Christmas Tradition,” about the origins and meaning of the play. The book is available on Amazon.com.
Las Posadas are held in different churches and parishes as well as select private homes. Here is the most recent schedule provided.