NEWARK, N.J. - The journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, when they were turned away at every door, resonates with many immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean.
In a nine-day ritual carried out across America, a number of Catholics - mostly immigrants from Mexico - replicate the journey by going door to door each night, symbolically asking for shelter, singing religious songs, and sharing food.
Msgr. William Reilly of Most Holy Name Church in Garfield said the tradition has been gaining in popularity in New Jersey.
"It reminds people we're all immigrants and we're always on our journey," he said. "It's a bridge to their own countries, and it allows them to have that tie to home."
Reilly said the celebrations, known as
, at his church had grown so large that this year, participants were divided into two groups to visit a network of 18 homes.
"We try to keep the traditions alive, and the important thing is for them to hand it down to their children, those who sit on the fence of two cultures and two worlds," Reilly said. "It's a way to retain the culture and customs of their families."
Although there are variations,
is traditionally a nine-night ritual symbolizing Mary's nine months of pregnancy. During the procession, churchgoers knock on the door of one home a night, asking for shelter for Joseph and his wife.
They are repeatedly turned away with "no room at the inn," and participants chant call-and-response exchanges through the closed door. Those outside keep knocking, praying and singing until they finally are invited in, and all rejoice at the message of Jesus' impending birth. They often share tamales, hot chocolate and other delicacies.
Sister Josefa Gonzalez of Most Holy Name said the tradition was also practiced in her native Dominican Republic.
"Each night we try to leave people with a message, one that focuses on our reality here as immigrants today," Gonzalez said in Spanish. "We speak of how to keep hope alive for the coming arrival of Jesus, and that hope translates into an idea that maybe tomorrow things will get better, and that we've left our countries in search of a better life and must be an example to others."
At Casa Puebla, a Mexican cultural center in Passaic, organizers pay special attention to persuading the New Jersey-born children of immigrants to take part in the tradition. They abbreviate the ritual to three nights in recognition of working families, and celebrate with a piñata and small bags of sweets and peanuts for the children.
Tamara Morales of Casa Puebla said this year's
had more young people than ever, as about half of the 60 attendees were under 15.
"We finally reached a breakthrough in getting them to be proud of who they are and where they came from," Morales said. "They weren't necessary born in Mexico, but it really resonated."