It's not the scent of pine that puts Rosa Ortiz in the Christmas spirit.
She recalls the sweet aroma of guavas and other tropical fruit that thrive in the countryside surrounding her tiny hometown in the Mexican state of Michoacan.
"Everything smells like that," says Ortiz. "It's part of the Christmas season."
The Rogue Valley may be inhospitable to guavas and fruits so exotic that Ortiz struggles to describe them. But she and other Latinos have transplanted the defining Christmas tradition of Las Posadas to new homes in Southern Oregon.
Combining pageantry, feasting and Christian worship, Las Posadas doesn't just remind Ortiz's children of their roots. It allows Latino families to share their culture — and cuisine — in a significant way with the larger community, says Laura Millette, parent coordinator at Phoenix Elementary School.
"For the parents, it's important to share some of the culture."
Leading up to Christmas, Las Posadas re-enacts Mary and Joseph's search for a place at an inn — "posada" in Spanish. Families parade through the streets, carrying candles and singing out their request for shelter, until one home finally opens its doors and welcomes the party with food and drinks. Following a hearty Las Posadas meal on Christmas Eve, families usually attend Mass, after which the celebration resumes.
In Mexico, the tradition stretches back to the 16th century, when Catholic priests introduced it as a way to teach about Mary and Joseph's journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Traditionally, the celebration runs Dec. 16 through 24, with the procession moving to a different house each day, representing the holy family's nine days of travel. But it's common, especially in the United States, to celebrate on a single night.
Phoenix Elementary held its Posada the first weekend in December before school let out and other activities filled up the calendar, Millette says, adding that Latino families have another reason to rush the celebration.
"It's cold outside," exclaims Ortiz, 38, who moved to the area in 2002.
As in Mexico, the children donned costumes to portray the main biblical characters: Maria, Jose, angels, shepherds and wise men. Phoenix students then toured the school grounds before ending in the gym for the ritual of knocking on doors. For safety, flashlights replaced candles, but costumes and other props can be quite elaborate
"A couple years ago, we had a real donkey," Millette says.
An elaborate feast follows the Posada. At Phoenix, participants could enjoy tamales or enchiladas with side dishes of rice and beans, as well as the more unfamiliar posole, a rich pork and hominy stew garnished with shredded lettuce or cabbage, radishes, onions and lime juice.
"Always for Christmas and New Year, posole is a must," says Ortiz, who cooks hers all night.
Ortiz and about 15 other parents of Phoenix students helped put on the Posada, a school tradition for about 15 years, Millette says. Families prepared all the food, using goods donated from local businesses, including Ray's Food Place and Si Casa Flores and Los Arcos restaurants.
"You can't get this at a restaurant," Millette says. "It's homemade.
"It's pretty well-known," she adds. "We get people from White City and Medford."
Organizers estimate that more than 50 families, including Caucasians, attended the event. Charging $2 per plate of food and $1 per beverage, Phoenix's parent-teacher organization raised about $1,000 earmarked to help offset school budget cuts, Millette says. From its small cache of funds, the PTA pays to open the school's art room at recess and also may support additional activities in music, she adds.
The school doesn't promote the event outside Phoenix, Millette says, because the demand is almost more than parents can fill with hundreds of tamales — all different depending on the family's regional Mexican origins, Millette says. Some diners purchased dozens to take home, she adds.
"They sold out."
With recipes changing hands and families tasting new twists on old dishes, the communal cooking, Ortiz says, rivals the Posada pageantry for fun. It's not only a chance to help people understand Mexican culture, but to gain a greater understanding of her own.
Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.