Folk Drama

By: Thomas A. Green

Type: General Entry

Published: September 1, 1995

Updated: August 5, 2020

Although folk drama-drama performed by an ethnic or folk group that has developed traditional rules for time, place, and manner of performance-is relatively rare in the United States, some folk dramas have endured in Texas. They come from Old World religious drama and are staged as a part of the Hispanic Christmas celebration, especially along the Rio Grande border. In contrast to the static scripts of literary dramas, the dialogue and actions represented in these plays maintain a certain fluidity, especially when the "same" play is performed in two different communities. Variation is the rule rather than the exception in folk theater. Nevertheless, in Texas only two general plots produce the various texts. Both recount events surrounding the birth of Christ. The more elaborate of these plays, in terms of dramatic development, is usually referred to as the Pastorela, or Los Pastores. As the title suggests, the plot is drawn from scriptural accounts of the shepherds' adoration of the Christ in the New Testament. The core of the drama portrays the journey of a group of shepherds to the birthplace of the Messiah and the efforts of Satan and related forces of evil to block his coming. The action is confined to an informal stage, usually a patio. Costuming and masks are used. Dialogue is interspersed with song. As in European medieval drama that reenacts sacred episodes, broad comedy remains integral to the performance. In one text, for example, during the shepherds' journey to Bethlehem, Lucifer attempts to discover from a clownish member of the group whether the Christ child has been born. This shepherd drives Lucifer into a rage of frustration by his foolish prattle, which results from his misunderstanding of simple questions. The action of the play is usually localized, the stock characters are given common local names, and the props and costumes anachronistically reflect the area's Mexican-American culture and Spanish ancestry.

The second folk drama, Las Posadas, is an expansion upon St. Luke's account of Joseph and Mary's search for shelter. Las Posadas is less elaborate than the Pastorela, however. It incorporates no comedy, and all the dialogue is sung. Whereas the action of Los Pastores is restricted to a comparatively limited performing area, Las Posadas combines the features of procession and drama. On the nine nights from December 16 through December 24, a group bearing images of St. Joseph and the holy Virgin reenact the couple's search for lodging. They go from house to house in the neighborhood and are refused until they arrive at a predetermined last dwelling, where they finally are invited to enter. Rejoicing, more prayer, and more song follow, then refreshments, piñatas, and sometimes social dancing. The dialogue in the play consists of entreaties for admittance sung by the group carrying the images of the holy couple and responses sung by persons portraying the innkeeper and others inside the homes visited. On the ninth and final night the participants celebrate the birth of Christ. Compared to Los Pastores, Las Posadas appears stylized, but a realistic enactment of the sacred event is not a particular goal of the performance.

Numerous Spanish nativity plays featuring shepherds and the holy family have been preserved from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although evidence suggests that the tradition was far older. Some writers speculate that these plays were introduced into the New World by Spanish clerics during the early period of colonization. There are reports of Pastorelas and Posadas in San Antonio in the mid-1800s and texts and documented performances of Pastorelas from the 1890s. Fewer performances of these folks plays have been reported in recent years than earlier in the twentieth century. The decline results in part from urbanization, increasing secularity, and the mobility of contemporary society. Urbanization has brought in outsiders who are unfamiliar with and perhaps even hostile to local traditions. Nor do the dangers and complexities of an urban environment encourage the casual, middle-of-the-street procession vital to the performance of Las Posadas. The loss of members of the group-older ones through death, younger ones through departure-has caused an unavoidable decline in this dramatic folk tradition. Nevertheless, the Christmas plays have not disappeared entirely. In fact, there has been an effort in some Hispanic communities to revive them. The performances are not "folk" in the strictest sense of the term; the literary sources of scripts and the frequent lack of folk modifications violate the principles of traditional performance. But efforts to reintroduce dramatic elements into Christmas festivities may eventually lead to a genuine revival of this Hispanic holiday tradition. See also MEXICAN-AMERICAN THEATER.

Roger Abrahams, "Folk Drama," in Folklore and Folklife, ed. Richard M. Dorson (University of Chicago Press, 1972). M. R. Cole, Los Pastores: A Mexican Play of the Nativity, Memoirs of the American Folklore Society 9 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1907). Richard Reyes Flores, "Los Pastores": Performance, Poetics, and Politics in Folk Drama (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1989). Thomas A. Green, "Introduction," Journal of American Folklore 94 (1981). Thomas A. Green, "Toward a Definition of Folk Drama," Journal of American Folklore 91 (1978). Juan Bautista Rael, The Sources and Diffusion of the Mexican Shepherds' Plays (Guadalajara: Librería La Joyita, 1965). Frances Toor, A Treasury of Mexican Folkways (New York: Crown, 1947).

  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
  • Performing Arts

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Thomas A. Green, “Folk Drama,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 15, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to:

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

September 1, 1995
August 5, 2020

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: