CARPENTERSVILLE (AP) - Three-year-old Isabella Dominguez's favorite is the porcelain Baby Jesus dressed in a white and blue satin jumper, lying in a manger. But the Baby Jesus is a family heirloom that belonged to her great-grandmother, Basilia Rangel Leon.
So Isabella's grandmother, Vicky Leon, lets the youngster cradle a plastic Baby Jesus instead while the family decorates its elaborate nacimiento, or Nativity scene, in preparation of "Las Posadas."
Las Posadas is a Central and South American tradition commemorating how the Holy family sought shelter at various inns for the night just before Jesus was born. Translated, "posada" means "inn."
Las Posadas begins on Dec. 16 and lasts nine days. In Mexico, the procession is led by a young girl portraying the Virgin Mary and a young man portraying Joseph, followed by children playing angels, the three kings and shepherds. The procession stops at homes, where songs are sung asking the homeowner for shelter, re-enacting the nativity scene. Afterward, a party is held where children break piñatas and food is served.
Vicky Leon grew up with the tradition in Mexico. When she moved to the United States at age 10, her family stopped celebrating Las Posadas. Fifteen years ago, she decided to start the tradition with her own children - Lila, now 23 and Joey, 17. Her youngest son, Noel, was born a year later.
"The whole idea was to get them involved in other things rather than Christmas being about the presents," said Vicky.
In Mexico, Christmas is about the Baby Jesus, she said. Families come together to pray and go to church. Presents are not given until after a rosary is said in honor of Baby Jesus. A central part of the celebration is the nacimiento. It is similar to a snow village, but with a religious focal point.
The nacimiento is built in tiers and landscaped to represent a barn or shelter. Figurines are added to represent the three wise men, shepherds and the Baby Jesus. This typically is the major Christmas decoration.
The Leon family's nacimiento is unique because it chronicles biblical stories from the beginning of time to Christ's crucifixion. Every year, Vicky had the children pick out a story then re-create it for the nacimiento.
Lila, now the mother of two, said she always liked reading the stories. Figuring out how to re-create each often became a project lasting weeks, yet she still enjoyed it, she said.
One problem was figuring out where to get a devil figurine, because the nacimiento reflects good and evil. She decided to spray paint one of her brothers' action figures red; it remains a part of the nacimiento.
Vicky has about 1,500 figurines. She searches through catalogues, Christian stores and other stores throughout the year for things to add or replace on the display.
A hand-painted canvas depicting the desert and palm trees came from a trip to Mexico. She also found tents on a separate trip. The sand was found locally.
Her husband, Jose, begins building the foundation in mid-November. The family spends five hours a day for 10 days putting up the nacimiento. Vicky said it grows every year as the family adds new stories. This year, she added the crucifixion.
The first display is of the Earth shrouded by a black and red cloth representing flames.
"It's all the little details," that take time but add character to the nacimiento, Lila said.
Her mother orchestrates how the display will be done, but she is open to ideas, Lila said. It is a tradition she hopes to pass onto her own children, who have now begun to help.
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