Of refugees and Christmas

While teaching at a school run by Mexican nuns, I learned about a Spanish Christmas tradition unknown to most Canadians. It is called Las Posadas.

In Spanish-speaking countries around the world, Catholics commemorate the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph (the term ‘posadas’ means ‘lodgings’ in English). We all know the story: the couple are repeatedly turned away before finding shelter in a stable, wherein the Prince of Peace is born. In imitation of this for Las Posadas, a young male and female are chosen to play the roles of Mary and Joseph and, dressed in costume, lead a procession of singing celebrants from door to door. In some countries the party is invited inside to pray at a nativity shrine. In others, the homeowner is required to sing a song in response to the procession. Regardless of how each of the Posadas is enacted, the observance itself is a combination Christmas pageant, caroling session and block party.

In the US/Mexico border city of Nogales where I lived and worked, the ceremony is conducted with a deep awareness of its political resonance. Nogales, a crossing for migrant workers and refugees, is a flashpoint where those leaving the Third World encounter the threshing machinery of the First: Homeland Security, state and local police and the armed goons of the Minuteman militia. In contrast to those visiting Mexico, my students faced a phalanx of armed security crossing the border to attend school each morning. Assuming they made it past the machine-guns and drug-sniffing dogs, there was always a chance they could be detained and searched. (“La migra,” was a common excuse I heard from late-comers to first period.) I learned, and quickly, that the wall we dismissed with an indifferent shrug is viewed as a towering insult by the Mexicans who dwell in its shadow.

And so each Christmas in Nogales Las Posadas is enacted. Because Nogales is a desert town, suitable costumes and a burro for the couple are easily procured. And, given the deeply-veined Catholicism that runs through the place, there is never any lack of participants. The pilgrimage lasts many hours, swelling as it progresses and ending, by tradition, at the US/Mexico border crossing. There, the songs are played and the ritual question is asked: “Do you have any room for the night?” The US border guards, of course, say nothing. And in a small act of protest, a crowd of candle-bearing Mexican Catholics stands and awaits an answer, staring at the border guards for a while before dispersing. The symbolism is unmistakable. No room at the inn.

Yesterday night, the first planeload of Syrian refugees arrived in Canada. Our Prime Minister was on hand to personally greet them. Upon arrival, each refugee received an immigrant visa, appropriate government ID, a health insurance card, winter clothing and a place to stay. The children in the group received toys. Translators, social workers, counselors and volunteers were on hand to help these new Canadians take the first steps of what will be a lengthy and frustrating transition. They will face difficulties. Our customs and traditions will seem strange to them. Winter will be an unfamiliar force to be reckoned with. And not everyone will welcome them. But they made it safely. And more are coming.

We would do well to remember what these people have endured. Their land was occupied by an oppressive military force which imposed its rule over the citizens before terrorizing, murdering and crucifying its way across the region. Treated as conquered subjects, these refugees were forced to flee across the desert where, after days and nights of walking, they were rejected by city after city. When their trek brought them to border walls, they asked the ritual question and were turned away. No doubt, many remain on the road tonight, sleeping outdoors or in barns and stables. Perhaps a few have even placed their infant children in mangers.

In doffing his coat and tie and handing out winter clothing along with the rest of the volunteers at Pearson Airport yesterday, Prime Minister Trudeau did more than just lead by example. With his resolve on this issue, he has returned something to Canada that was conspicuously absent during the Harper years. It is something difficult to characterize, but terms like ‘heart’ or ‘compassion’ – a sense of being connected to a broader humanity or simply a beacon of light – apply. But whatever you call it,  it’s shining tonight as an example to the rest of the world.

In Canada, we have room at the inn.

Happy holidays and welcome, my fellow Canadians.




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