In many Mexican-American homes, Christmas is not Christmas without homemade tamales. It’s a tradition much like cookie baking. I’ve enjoyed gift tamales, but have never seen what goes into the preparation and cooking of this much-revered holiday food. When my friends, Billie and Angelica, invited Robin and me to take part in the traditional festivity, I was ecstatic! Billy’s parents are from Mexico, so he remembers having made Christmas tamales many times.
“Which part of the tamale making do you want to be here for?” he asked. “The mixing, the spreading, the filling, the wrapping, the cooking? There are lots of steps.”
“The eating,” I said, jokingly. “When will that be?”
“If all goes according to plan, it should be late on Christmas Eve.”
I learn that over the next two days, Billy intends to make a total of 300 tamales, a task that he undertakes with his usual calm intensity.
I went on line to learn more about the ancient custom. I found that tamale making goes back thousands of years to the Incas, Mayan and Aztec people—long before the arrival of the Europeans. Today’s version begins with a dough made of corn hominy called masa mixed with lard or vegetable shortening. Spiced-up pork, chicken, or cheese fill the tamale that includes either a red or green sauce. The finished tamale is wrapped in corn husks, or plantain leaves, before being steamed for an hour or more. It’s not a simple process. But it is a fun time to share with family and friends.
Christmas is a time when families think about the continuity between generations and the traditions that bind them to each other. It’s also a time for letting new people into your heart. Making tamales together does all those things.