Yolanda Gonzales, her husband Jaime Navarrete and their daughters Naomi and Nina came to live in Tiffin in August 2011. Jaime had accepted a job in the area, and the family was able to rent a home in Tiffin. The girls enrolled in Tiffin City Schools.
"We moved here from Owensboro, Ky. ... We met Phil Engle and he rented us a house with two dogs and a rabbit," Yolanda said.
In their Hispanic tradition, the family had celebrated Christmas by participating in Las Posadas in Owensboro, where they lived for 12 years. Last Christmas, they traveled to Fremont for the observance. This year, they wanted to host their own Las Posadas celebration in their home with new friends they had made here.
"We wanted to bring some of that with us. When you don't have family nearby, you create your own. This is a way to celebrate with your neighbors," Gonzales said.
She approached the Rev. Joe Szybka at St. Joseph Catholic Church to explain her idea and to invite church members to celebrate with her family. Jaime and the girls had agreed to help with the preparations. It didn't matter how many people showed up. Szybka called Yolanda "an adventuresome lady," but he encouraged her to carry out the plans.
They decided on Dec. 16, and the invitation ran in the parish bulletin.
"He even announced it after Mass Sunday morning," Gonzales said.
"This is also the official first day," Jaime added.
Sunday night, the Gonzales-Navarrete family had lined their walkway with luminaria to welcome participants.
The couple described how Las Posadas typically takes place at a home where visitors act out the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem where Jesus would be born.
Nina Navarette and Austin Seay dressed as Mary and Joseph and went out to the front porch. Jaime asked some of the guests to go with the children, light candles and stand outside the door. The rest remained indoors as the innkeepers.
Jaime went outside with his guitar to lead the singing of "Para Pedir Posadas." The traditional song is a dialogue between the two groups.
"We sing it back and forth," Yolanda said.
Yolanda stayed inside to lead those verses of the song, all done in Spanish.
The outside group begins with a plea for shelter, and the indoor group at first responds there is no room for the travelers. At the end of the song, the innkeepers recognize Mary and Joseph, open the door and invite everyone inside.
In Mexico, a procession moves from house to house. Also, the ritual takes place for nine consecutive nights, ending on Christmas Eve.
North of the border, each community adds its variations, Yolanda said. The number of days can vary and the celebration can take place at one or more locations.
Next, Jaime referred to a scripture passage about the birth of Jesus in which the shepherds react in fear to the appearance of the angels.
"The first ones to hear the news of Jesus' birth were the poor. ... the sinners, the simple people and those with riches but poor in their hearts," he translated. "When the shepherds saw the child in the manger, their fear turned to joy."
When the reading was complete, the couple and their daughters invited guests to have Mexican refreshments they had prepared. The food is served with Mexican hot chocolate and "ponche" (hot punch) for a social hour.
"My husband and I made tamales, empanadas and bunuelos. ... We started cooking two weeks ago," Yolanda said.
Yolanda and Jaime did not know how many people to expect, and they did not know everyone who attended. They said the celebration is open to anyone who wants to come. It is supposed to be an event that could take place anywhere. The couple had hosted Las Posadas several times at their former places of residence.
"At our other house, as the years went by, it got even more packed. There were people sitting on the floor in the living room. Some houses we would go to ... people would be two to a seat, side by side by side," Yolanda said.
The guests included Sister Andrea Inkrott, a Tiffin Franciscan nun who spent seven years working in Chiapas, Mexico, and 20 years as the director of Hispanic Ministry in the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C.
Singing "Para Pedir Posadas" in Spanish was easy for her. She called the celebration a form of "popular religiosity."
"It brought back so many memories," Inkrott said. "It's a way to celebrate faith in their homes with family and neighbors."
Inkrott said she remembered Mexican women preparing hundreds of bunuelos for the festivities in Chiapas. They would set up a makeshift table on a door and start with a bag of flour. Making a well in the center, they added 30 eggs, melted lard and powdered milk. Then they mixed it, kneaded it, shaped it into balls, rolled it, cut it into triangles and hung the pieces to dry.
When the pieces were crisp enough, the women piled them up on a sheet of plastic and drizzled honey on them or dusted them with sugar.
Szybka said the event reminded him of the early days of Christianity when the faithful gathered in various houses for celebrations and worship.
"They are such gracious hosts," Szybka said. "This is a very nice event to attune people to other cultures and customs."
As the guests prepared to depart, Jaime pointed out the remaining platters of food, saying it was too much for his family to eat.
"Take something with you," he said.
The family had prepared enough food for about 100, but they were pleased to have about 50 people accept their invitation. Yolanda expressed hope the event could continue next year and grow as people learn more about it.
Usually, the children have a pinata to break open. Yolanda said she decided not to have that portion without knowing whether any children would come.
"It doesn't matter what you have. You open your doors to your neighbors to celebrate Christmas," she said.