Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, December 13, 2010

Tamales on Christmas Eve

My family has quite a long list of Christmas traditions, from my mom crying every time the choir sings "O Holy Night" at the Christmas Eve service, to my brother being the first one up on Christmas morning, to my dad passing out the presents. But there's one tradition in particular that I started thinking more about recently. And that's tamales on Christmas Eve.

Quick background on tamales. If you haven't had a tamale, well, you are missing out, my friend. Styles vary, but the kind that is popular in my hometown are meat and cheese mixed with a corn dough and wrapped and steamed in a corn husk. Simple and completely delicious. In some places they're wrapped in banana leaves, but I'm partial to the more savory style. They originated in Latin America way way way back when.

Now, it must be said that my family is not Latino and does not have any Latino roots that would result in a tradition like tamales on Christmas Eve. The ancestry we have been able to trace goes back to early America and then back to England.

But what makes these tamales interesting to me isn't just that we American/English types eat them on Christmas Eve. I mean, they're delicious, so why not. But after asking around, I started realizing that we're not the only white family with this exact same tradition.

Colusa

In order to explain why I would find tamales on Christmas Eve significant, I probably should tell you a bit about my hometown. Colusa was founded in the 1850s, and for a long time was a significant port as it was the farthest place north that riverboats could navigate the Sacramento River, meaning all of the produce and grain grown in the region flowed through Colusa to the barges on to destinations elsewhere. From the 1850s onward the population has roughly hovered around 4,000-5,000 people. It remains a major rice growing region, as the hard clay soil common in the area lends itself perfectly to rice.

Local lore has it that the town was founded by Southerners, and that the town voted to secede from the Union during the Civil War. Whether or not that is true or apocryphal, it has always been a place where race and labor relations have experienced flashpoints.

There were major labor battles in the area, including the Wheatland Hop Riot, which resulted in four deaths, and happened just thirty miles away in 1913. And during the 20th Century, Colusa gradually saw a broad demographic shift take place, as the makeup of the migrant farmworker population gradually morphed from refugees from the Midwest Dust Bowl to immigrants from Latin America, and especially Mexico. Over the course of the 20th Century, the town went from a mostly white place with some Chinese-American families to now roughly 55%/45% white/Latino.

Growing up

I should say that I had the incredible fortune of coming from a very open-minded and decidedly non-racist household. My parents both grew up in Colusa, but did not share what are, unfortunately, relatively common negative attitudes toward immigrants.

As I spent time with friends and other families growing up, epithets, stereotypes, and hostility toward Mexican-Americans were commonplace. These stereotypes were exacerbated by economic differences. It's a town where the farmers were almost uniformly white, and the farmworkers almost uniformly from Mexico.

Those attitudes really permeated the atmosphere at school and in the town. When I was in 3rd Grade, at recess one day we kids divided ourselves into a Mexicans vs. Americans soccer match--it wasn't necessarily a hostile division, and at that age I think probably more of a quick way at arriving at roughly even sides rather than something we took overly seriously, but still a sign that even at that age we recognized the divisions. (Fortunately the principal quickly put an end to it and explained that wasn't a divide we should fixate on.)

And during my freshman year of high school, the town was roiled by Prop 187, a controversial voter initiative that would have denied all public services to illegal immigrants, including school and health care. The atmosphere was really charged in my hometown, and the Latino students in my high school staged a walkout in conjunction with a broader town protest. I didn't support the proposition by any means, but race relations being as they were, it honestly didn't really occur to me at the time that I could have attended the protest.

The initiative ended up passing in my county with 77% of the vote, compared to 59% in the state as a whole, though it was eventually ruled unconstitutional.

Tamales

So believe me when I say, this isn't necessarily a town where you'd expect to find a white family eating tamales on Christmas Eve.

And yet my family is not alone in this tradition. The more I've asked around, the more I've heard of families sharing the same tradition, not just in Colusa but in other towns in border states. I don't know that anyone can necessarily put a date to when they started it, but it's an amazing sign of how the people around you can affect your lives and traditions in ways you may not initially expect.

There's something really American to me about all of this. As rough and as haphazard as the melting pot sometimes seems with the hostilities that creep up between cultures and races, we simultaneously grow together in imperceptible and meaningful ways just by living in the same space. We share our best traditions, and one day we wake up and find ourselves closer than we were before. And in my hometown, eating tamales is a way of giving back as well, as the ones we eat are made as part of a Christmas fundraiser to support community projects.

Sure, eating tamales on Christmas Eve doesn't solve the lasting issues in my hometown and doesn't mean everything is perfect. But for one night, people let a new culture into their cherished traditions on one of our most important holidays. Christmas is a time of tradition and family and continuity between generations and years, but also about letting new people into your heart.

Do you have any unique and cherished traditions, and have you thought about what they mean?






87 comments:

Joanne Sher said...

This post had me completely fascinated. What a great read, with a fascinating history.

All Adither said...

If by tradition you mean racing around the house, sweating and muttering as I try to finish wrapping presents, then yes! We have deeply rooted traditions around here. :)

#itsuckstobetheparent

Munk Davis said...

Cool post Nathan. If you haven't seen it... you should pick up a little gem by Steinbeck entitled "Their Blood is Strong". I found a 1936 printing at our university's library this weekend and was mesmerized.

Jeff Abbott said...

Tamales are also very much a part of Christmas traditions in Texas. My wife went to a tamale making party last week that lasted most of the day--they made dozens. It was her first time to make them; usually we buy them from friends whose families have a tradition of making them for Christmas.

abc said...

I first had a tamale about 13 or so years ago when I moved to Austin from the midwest after college. The coffeeshop where I had lunch offered vegetarian tamales as their veg selection for the day. I had no idea what they were, but figured I'd give them a try. Of course when they arrived--corn husk and all--I had no idea what to do with them and tried, unsuccessfully of course, to actually eat the corn husk. I eventually figured it out.

Lots of folks in Texas do this tradition. Our only Christmas Eve tradition involves ordering pizza delivery. Now I feel lame.

Great post!

Watcher55 said...

I have eight brothers and sisters (with nieces, nephews and in-laws, well I lost count at 45). Christmas Eve is at Mom's and Dad's. Since I was kid we go to 5:00 Mass, simple dinner then Dad passes out the 100's of presents then the kids go to bed and wait for Claus.

Watcher55 said...
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Tom Jamieson said...

nice post....I too love tamales, especially the ones made with peppers and cheese....thanks for sharing your story....

Watcher55 said...
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Laurel said...

I love tamales! We've not done them on Christmas Eve, but we are talking about a traditional Noche Buena pig roast this year.

Feliz Navidad!

Deni Krueger said...

Being thankful every day. It's definitely not easy.

MJR said...

interesting story--thanks for sharing it.

We eat Japanese food every Christmas Eve...it started 11 years ago when we went to a Japanese shopping center nearby to get Pokemon toys for my son BEFORE they had arrived in the US en masse (that's how obsessed he was). The food there was so delicious and somehow going back there and eating Japanese food turned into our Christmas tradition!

A soloist in my church sings O Holy Night every Christmas Eve--another treasured tradition...

chelle said...

Tamales! When I was a little girl in San Jose, CA, my mother spent a December day with our neighbor, Maria, learning to make tamales. An entire day. It's a long, long, process. That's why, I firmly believe, that they're a Christmas Eve tradition. It's the only time of the year we're willing to spend the time.
Now I'm in NY state, and no good tamales to be found. I have to make them. But only at Christmastime.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Wait, you get HOMEMADE tamales for Christmas Eve? Now I'm really jealous.

I grew up in So. Cal., but we didn't develop that tradition. Although I'd kind of like to, because tamales are just yummy.

Also: melting pot=awesome

swampfox said...

Christmas tradition? Over the years different ones have come and gone, but one never changes. We get up in the morning and open presents!

Susan Cushman said...

Another tradition borrowed from a different culture: we hide a PICKLE ORNAMENT in our tree on Christmas Eve. The next morning the children rush in an hunt for it and whoever finds it gets an extra little gift. It's a German tradition. My mother-in-law gave us the pickle ornament (with instructions about the tradition) many years ago. Now our GROWN KIDS still love to hunt for the pickle on Christmas morning, when they're home. I've given them each their own pickle ornaments to continue the tradition in their own homes.

Rick Daley said...

I love tamales. I haven't tried to make them (yet) but may give it a go in the near future.

We always stay at home on Christmas Day, drinking mamosas (champagne and OJ) and watching the kids play with their toys. We have a big feast on Christmas Eve, like it's a second Thanksgiving, and we chow down on leftovers on Christmas Day so we don't have to do any extra work.

Tracy Hahn-Burkett said...

What a wonderful story, and an excellent example of how much family and regional culture and history can be drawn out of a single, seemingly simple tradition. Thanks for sharing it.

And I wish I knew how to prepare tamales, because I'd love to try this. Any chance you'd like to share a recipe, too? :)

Josin L. McQuein said...

Come to Texas. You're likely to find the steamer of tamales next to the turkey and ham.

Danielle La Paglia said...

We just made our first ten dozen tamales last night (yes, I said "first" ten dozen). I am of mixed heritage--Mexican, Italian, and mostly white. We did not make tamales growing up as my mother is white and my dad's mother is also white. However, I have married into a Mexican family and it's a joy (albeit a lot of work) to gather around the table with three generations and laugh and talk and work through our assembly line making the Christmas tamales, not only for our family, but to share with friends and coworkers as well.

Anonymous said...

I'm a legal US citizen from Alaska. We all gather together, shoot a caribou, and roast it over an open fire while we sing Christmas carols.

Stephanie Garber said...

I heart tamales!

I also think my family has a unique Christmas Eve tradition. Every year, since the first year my parents got married, until now, on Christmas Eve our whole family sits in front of the tree and my dad makes a quick movie "This is Christmas eve 2010..." and so on.
Everyone speaks for about 30 seconds, and it is usually a bit on the awkward side, but it is so fun to look back on. We have one long DVD that has the 2 minute clips of all the Christmas Eve's and it dates back to the early seventies, which is pretty cool to watch and some times embarrassing to look back on!

Megan said...

We have pierogies for Christmas Eve dinner. When I was little we used to go over to my Grandma's house, where she and my Great Grandma would spend all day making them from scratch. Now my mom and I make them while my dad claims he doesn't know how, despite having grown up with them, and then tells us we're doing it wrong. Then on Christmas we open presents, go see a movie, and then get Chinese food for dinner.

Kelly D said...

We ate tamales every year around Christmas when I was growing up. There were always a number of local women making them from scratch. My mom would go with her friends to the house of whoever’s tamales were hot that year and pick up a couple dozen. We aren’t Latino and I know of a number of Caucasian families who eat Christmas tamales also. I think this is one of those traditions that will creep into all of American society. Tamales are just so scrumptious.
I have to disagree with one thing you said. They may seem simple, but like a lot of Mexican food, making them from scratch is not. My husband made them a few years ago. He went all out-stripped his own pork, made the masa from scratch. It took him three days.

Anonymous said...

It just isn't Christmas without tamales made by sweet little abuelas of your co-workers. I'm a currently displaced Texan and I can't wait to get home and enjoy mountains of the things, the more lard, the better. Feliz Navidad, amigos!

Cacy said...

Yea, history! Boo, xenophobia!

Tamales are my favorite (chicken without cheese) especially homemade. I helped make some one New Years, and let me tell you, spending all friggin' day in an assembly line putting them together really makes you appreciate every single tamale you consume from that point on.

Anyway, my families tradition when I was a kid was that me and my sisters could only open one present an hour because my mom wanted us to appreciate every single present. Which was cool when the present was a toy, less cool when it was socks. I have to say though, the one-an-hour tradition did literally make Christmas last aaaall day. And that was a good thing.

Laura Campbell said...

Traditions were abundant when my sister and I were younger. My dad would take us to the movies while my mom "made Christmas cookies". Then, when we returned, we were allowed to open one present before trying to fall asleep. Of course, she and I planned our midnight gift/Santa-stake outs and took many trips up and down the stairs until they finally appeared like magic. Canvassing the tree, inspecting the presents and making guesses as to what was hiding under the beautiful wrapping paper would continue through the night. I only just recently found out my parents knew the entire time. Apparently, our planning sessions were not so secret. This year (many years later) we will be spending Christmas in Pittsburgh at my sisters, and my boyfriend will be joining us. A great time to create a few new traditions.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Your mom and I have something in common regarding "Oh Holy Night".

Our tradition is getting together at my parent's house Christmas Eve with all our family members, who's numbers have have grown exponentially over the years.

Great post!

Deb said...

In my tradition, Christmas Eve dinners are take out Chinese Food. But something we started last year, and will continue, takes place on Martin Luther King Day. I made fondue for dinner (cheese, followed by chocolate for dessert), and then we gathered round the TV to watch a musical. It seemed an appropriate way to honor a man who made life sweeter for us all.

vnrieker said...

we had a cat named Tamale once.

we didn't eat it.

M.E. Pickett said...

My family's tradition is enchiladas. We are also a white family, so I don't know where the Mexican food/Christmas Eve tradition came from. I think my mom just found a great enchilada recipe, made it one year, and it just stuck. Either way, I'm looking forward to traveling back to Sac-town for them soon.

Betsy Ashton said...

When I lived in Southern California, my neighbors always made tamales for Christmas Eve. I looked forward to their gift. It's been over thirty years since I lived in Southern California and I still make home-made tamales for Christmas Eve. Yummy.

Sara said...

Our tradition is a Kringle for Christmas breakfast, along with sausages and a large platter of tropical fruit. The fruit tradition dates from my uncle's previous marriage to an airline hostess in the 1960s and 70s. She always sent a box of fruit from Hawaii.

The Danish is a big commitment. My mother used to buy it in MN from a place that sold good Danish, not sticky or overfilled, more bread than sweet. No such thing to be had Out East, so I started making it. It's a two-day procedure, but like tamales, worth the effort once a year; warm light melting pastry like the angel of fresh bread, scented with cardamom and a little crunchy with toasted almonds and sugar. Even the kids drop everything for breakfast on Christmas Day.

Which reminds me of the Grace Paley poem, about how she made a pie today, because everyone always loves them and says "you should have made two!" and nobody ever says that about a poem.

The Red Angel said...

Wow, this is really neat, Nathan! Thanks for sharing. :) It was awesome getting to know a little more about you and a little bit of background/history. I love tamales. :D

~TRA

http://xtheredangelx.blogspot.com

Becca said...

My family has inside-outs every Christmas Eve. We eat them in the car in the church parking lot before Christmas Eve service. Then we spill hot cheese on our nice Christmas clothes,

D.G. Hudson said...

Thanks for sharing some of your background. I've had tamales (in the corn husks)made by a Mexican mother of a friend of mine. That was many years ago and I still remember the taste.

In western Canada, where I live, I've experienced more of a blending of cultures. As a result of that and the fact that I came from a different region, our Christmas traditions encompass native Indian, southern, and Canadian traditions. My family insists on certain dishes every year - some from my heritage, and some from my husband's. That goes for New Year's too.

It all seems to indicate that traditions are something which we can follow or change. They are an island of certainty in the midst of uncertainty. Traditions can evoke memories and comfort, when we like them or groans if we don't.

It's nice to know you're a deep thinker, Nathan. Acceptance via tamales/traditions is a good example of blending cultures.

Tom Bentley said...

Nathan, I had a Mexican-American girlfriend in high school, and the Christmas Eve tamales were fabulous! (Can't say I ever acquired a taste for menudo, though.) I live in a town (Watsonville) that's 70% Hispanic, and some of the best food is from hole-in-the-wall taquerias and the like.

By the way, I drive through Colusa every now and then, and always think it looks like a nice place to live...

Gryvon said...

Our big traditional meal is always pork, sauerkraut, and dumplings on New Years. Most of the people from my hometown share in that tradition, likely from the heavy Germanic/PA Dutch roots of our region. I moved up north to Buffalo (with it's heavy Irish/Polish roots) and it's all corned beef and cabbage up here, which I tend to do as well if we're having a big New Year's gathering.

For Christmas we always make spritz cookies in different colors - pink poinsettias, green trees, etc.

One of my favorite recently new to me traditions is staying up all night for Yule with friends, family, and good food.

Now that I've learned how to make truffles, I have a feeling that's going to become a holiday tradition as well.

Paullina_Petrova said...

Nathan, I was born in Bulgaria - a country where 20 years ago it was banned by the government to celebrate Christmas. Can you imagine? In 45 years (1944-1989), people have been taught to celebrate the New Years Eve and not to believe in God. Then came democracy (as we often say) and we had several years of great crisis. People had no money to celebrate anything. But for senturies (Bulgaria has been found in year 681) the day before Christmas was always the most important family holiday. On this day, we put an odd number of vegetarian dishes on the table (no meat, eggs, cheese, butter and fish). We make a special bread and put in it small things that bring good luck. The oldest in the family distribute to all of the bread guided by age - the youngest gets the bread last. What you find in your bread shows what will be the new year for you - cornel twig - means health, knob - means craft, straw - farm work, coin - wealth. The coin should be silver. We place it in a glass of red wine and then all drink a sip of the wine. We leave the food on the table until the morning to allow God to come and have a dinner. Please excuse me for my bad English.

Steppe said...

In the northern states we don't rely on farming so illegal immigrants squeeze the honest tradesmen out of business. An immigrant who doesn't pay taxes, health, & unemployment-insurance etc can work for twelve dollars an hour and the citizen must get twenty-five dollars an hour to break even and bring home twelve dollars like the immigrants.
We should either have no laws and let everyone do whatever they want or we should have one set of rules and obey them before the economy dies forever.
I respect and understand your opinion on the issue and appreciate you elucidating it respectively and poignantly. When I was down on my luck in California only the Mexicans would stop on the highway and give a bum a lift and some food and smiles.
So I truly understand the genesis of your point of view but sometimes the big picture screams for attention. Illegal immigrants are leaving my area now because their home countries economies are more attractive and vibrant. It's a tough issue but sure to teach the lesson that every story, problem or situation has two wide sides of human issues. Midnight Mass accompanied by the children re-enacting the nativity scene with the little kids dressed up as the three wise men is the big tradition here.

Steppe said...

Oh yeah, here in Massachusetts we have Portuguese from all over the world. It's like your area out west. Yes I dated a lot of Portuguese girls and played on the same sports teams with the boys. Here were about 45% Portuguese 10% Black and 45% Europeans. Don't tell the Natives I think they still want their land back!!!

TKAstle said...

I'm with you on the tamale thing. I live in Yuba City and work in Colusa, so I can really relate.

We don't save our tamales for Christmas Eve, but they are definitely part of our holiday season.

Hmmm, now you've made me wonder if the teenage girl I've gotten mine from the last two Christmases is going to be selling them again this year. I'll have to give her a call this week. If not, I'll have to hunt down your source in Colusa.

J.J. Bennett said...

We do meatloaf Christmas Eve. Our ode to "Christmas Story" :)

Down the well said...

Wow, I sit down to take a break from making tamales only to find a post about TAMALES!!!

It aint Christmas without tamales.

G. Neri said...

Tamales on Christmas eve, Gumbo on Christmas day. That satisfies both my Mexican and Creole sides!

Anonymous said...

Chinese food on Christmas! My family is Jewish, and yes, we partake in this one. How/Why do we think this started?

Nicole L Rivera said...

We do tamales with my in-laws, but they are Panamanian and Nicaraguan. My mom bakes these awesome delicious Neapolitan cookies. They are italian cookies with chocolate chips, raisins, cherries, and walnuts in a mix of dark and light batter. Yummy :)

Gracie said...

As far as traditions go... me, my siblings and my cousins being difficult as my aunt tries to take a (horrible) picture of us every Christmas eve at my grandparent's... ah, so funny.

Jil said...

I taught English as a second Language to foreign adults and we had every nationality there is. So we celebrated everyone's special days. Ramadan, Hanakka,etc. and of course, Christmas. We sang carols, chose someone, maybe even a Muslim, to be Santa and hand out gifts. Everyone brought something of their own country for the feast and it was wonderful, We were one loving,laughing family.
I suppose someone in power would have fired me for mixing church and state but, y'know, I really didn't care.

amber polo said...

Lots of tamales in Arizona around Christmas, but I love the sweet tamales best. Raisins, nuts, brown sugar, cinnamon is one version. Others use apricot jam and other yum fillings.
There are also rumblings about chocolate, but I've never tasted one.

Kimberly Ivey said...

Nathan,

Loved your Tamale blog. As a multigeneration native Texan who married into a Latin family, tamales have been on the regular holiday menu at our house for years.

I've never made them but I do buy them and the family gobbles them up. Sometimes we even save them until New Year's eve to have with champagne and shrimp cocktail. Wow, what a combo!

Hope you are having a wonderful holiday season!

Bill Az said...

Green corn tamales are a Christmas tradition here in Tucson--for anyone of whatever ethnicity who's lived here awhile. We had our annual Tamal Festival a week ago at the local Yaqui Casino--contests for the best tamales in different categories, lots of chances to taste various types, etc.--a fun time.

ClareWB said...

My family, Irish Catholics who weren't supposed to eat mat on Christmas Eve, bent the rules every year to eat tamales. My father and an uncle or two would go into Redding (from French Gulch) and buy them from Twomey's Irish Bar on Market St. They were homemade by a Mexican woman. You had to get there early to make sure they didn't run out. My father and uncles usually arrived back in French Gulch with a bit of Irish whiskey under their belts, but in time to celebrate the great tamale feast. I have no idea where the tradition began, but this was before World War II and I'm sure had gone on long before I remember.

J. T. Shea said...

Fascinating, Nathan! I'm still digesting. Your post, that is, not a tamale. Now, where would I get tamales in Ireland? To eat on Christmas Eve in honor of cultural diversity, being as I am an immigrant, to Ireland from the USA.

Paullina Petrova, thank you for reminding me not to take freedom and democracy for granted.

Nancy Thompson said...

What would have really made this post a hit is the recipe for those tamales. How 'bout it, Nathan. Care to share your mother's tamale recipe?

Lovelyn said...

There are no tamales on Christmas Eve at my house. I love tamales though and am considering starting a new tradition. In my family we wait until Christmas Eve to put up the Christmas tree and decorations. Then they stay up until New Years Day when we promptly take them down. I think the tradition started because it was cheaper to buy a real tree on Christmas Eve.

Yat-Yee said...

The Christmas season has been different each year, due to either my musical involvement this time of the year, or travels, we haven't had time to develop any traditions. We do, however, have food traditions for two other holiday, neither of which is unique, I'm sure.

For Thanksgiving, we eat duck. Just don't care for Turkey; even the farm-raised, organic, 8-lb birds are no match for a succulent roast duck.

For Easter, we eat lamb and Mediterranean side dishes. Jesus eating ham was not an imagery that is conjured up. ;) Seriously, it's because my husband loves lamb and we both love Mediterranean food and it's a great excuse.

Growing up Chinese in Malaysia, now that was a childhood filled with all sorts of traditions.

Anonymous said...

Nice post (and story) Nathan. Hey, maybe you should become a writer!

Terin Tashi Miller said...

I love Tamales, though I'm particularly partial to the flavor of pork tamales Peruvian style.

But I can't say I've ever had them for Christmas, either.

My family's traditions were ham, and no big deal the night before Christmas, putting up the tree we probably got that night, my dad and I sitting with one leg in, one leg out on the floor testing all the series string lights (way back) to find the one out that was causing a short; stringing the tree up because it always fell over at least once, bubble lights, the one bird with an elf on it that bounced on a spring representing my grandmother's pet parakeet, and then my brother and sister and I getting up early, rushing downstairs and eating candy and playing ONLY with presents Santa gave us until my parents staggered down stairs, my father ground the coffee beans in the hand grinder, and my mother made "scribbled" eggs with cream cheese and green onions.

My family is all gone now, and I've adopted or adapted to my wife's family traditions, which include getting the tree the first week of December, and making lasagna for Christmas eve (her mother was Italian) and Lefse with cinamon and butter (her father was Norwegian). One year, not with family, she made manicotti for friends.

My 8-year-old son knows no other Christmas than being with his mother's family, which now has dwindled down to his aunt and his cousin; but he loves the way his aunt decorates her house and looks forward to visiting her every Christmas, and to playing with ONLY the toys Santa brought Christmas morning until everyone's around the tree to distribute presents.

My favorite Christmas was in Darjeeling Hill District, where my brother and sister and I suspected we'd be passed by when Santa flew around, only to discover the next morning in our parents' main sitting room of their bungalow (we had our own for us three kids) a plethora of gifts such as flannel pajamas and rabbit-fur-lined mittens and hats and slippers, all of which were appreciated considering we were celebrating within site of Mount Kanchenjunga and a short drive up Tiger Hill from a view of Everest...

Mira said...

Oh tamales! YUM!

I think your point in this post is lovely - that even when there are tensions, neighboring cultures can't help but share with one another. Especially wonderful things. Like Tamales!! :)

My family tradition was to celebrate both Channuka and Christmas. Although both of my parents were Jewish, for some reason we did the whole Santa Claus Christmas thing - for which I am very grateful. It's a wonderful holiday - the lights, the songs, the food, the presents - and one of my fondest childhood memories was staying up until all hours one Christmas Eve, trying to catch a glimpse of Santa and his raindeers landing on the roof. Oh so exciting!

I guess that's an example where I benefited from sharing a neighboring cultural tradition. :)

Thanks for this post, Nathan.

Sara said...

Our Christmas Eve tradition was always to make Italian food (usually handmade cavatellis) and now that I'm an adult, I've both elevated and retro'd that back to a full-on Feast of the Seven Fishes which my grandmother and older relatives used to have. This is an Italian tradition where, you guessed it, we have (at least!) seven different fish (and seafood) varieties prepared different ways for each course. It's quite a feat...a veritable culinary accomplishment. A LOT of work but SO worthwhile.

I love Christmas Eve traditions - especially culturally significant ones :)

Anonymous said...

Christmas. It was a Chistmas kids' party where Christmas and most of my life was ruined. So my Christmas tradition since then has been to avoid it as much as possible.

Call me a scrouge if you will. That day opened my eyes to the indifferent hearts of humanity. Completely contrary to the true meaning of Christmas, which I did learn because of that day and other lessons a five-year-old shouldn't have to learn. Lessons I'm still coming to terms with half a lifespan later. I've long since forgiven, but the damage was done. I'm better this year than ever at coping with this incurable bah-humbug sickness.

Merry Christmas. May all your wishes come true. My wishes are for the world to be a little more compasionate and may all you and yours prosper and enjoy good health.

Kristi Helvig said...

We live in a state with a high Hispanic population and my husband would love to adopt your tradition, as one of his co-workers makes amazing, authentic tamales. I think this post is beautiful and highlights the potential we have as humans. Happy Holidays!

writeintention said...

Any chance of you posting your recipe?

T. Anne said...

My in-laws tend to gravitate towards enchiladas on Christmas Eve. (We spend Christmas Eve with them each year). At first the menu change was in rebellion to a do-over of Thanksgiving dinner and wanting to break out of the mold of what was expected. And we liked it, so we kept doing it. I suppose that's how all traditions start out.

Loved your family and town history! Thanx for sharing!

Claire said...

Christmas Eve fondue. If there's a big enough crowd then it's cheese then meat followed by chocolate. If it's just two of us then cheese wins out while my parents, on the other side of the country have the works with their friends and neighbours. In the morning we put the Christmas Breakfast in the oven (an egg soaked bread casserole-ish creation prepared the day before) and everyone gets to enjoy the morning without having to interrupt it with cooking.

Sarah said...

A great post, Nathan. I like your evocation of the cultural background.I've never tasted Tamales - now I want to.
My grandfather's personal tradition was for him to greet his family as they returned from Midnight Mass (his wife and kids were devout Roman Catholics; he was an atheist) with one glass of sherry apiece to wish them Merry Christmas.
The sherry was in a large bottle which was only opened that once a year. The rest of the time it sat in a cupboard. It was the only alcohol in the house, lasted for ages, and as the years passed the rim of the bottle became encrusted with sticky dust.
His parents were alcoholics and he had painful memories of being dragged from his bed in the middle of the night as a small boy to play the flute for a houseful of drunken adults to his little sister's piano accompaniment. They both became professional musicians, and none of the 11 siblings ever drank.
When I was a child we went to Midnight Mass at the Benedictine Abbey which was also our parish church. My mother insisted on arriving earlier than everyone else. This meant we usually got there at about 10, before the previous service, a mass in Polish for the large Polish-speaking community in our area, let out. My mother invariably commented on the smell of garlic.
When they flocked out (and the huge church would be packed) we'd dash in to try and get seats in the front row. There would be a long, long wait until a carol service at 11 conducted by the choir master. In later years this was sung by a community choir including persons of a female persuasion, so they were arrayed in front of the sanctuary rails rather than inside it - a place no woman could be, unless she was a bride, in her coffin, or vacuuming the carpet.
Just before midnight, the choir would depart, the lights go out, and we would wait for the midnight bell, rung in darkness.
When the twelfth note died away, we'd hear a single voice raised in plainsong from the very back of the church, and the whole monastic community would file in with their dark robes on and their hoods up, chanting in Latin and holding candles. Then the choir, the altar servers carrying incense, and finally the celebrants in their robes. This coup de theatre was followed by a sung mass.
The first line of the first reading from Isaiah always sends a shiver down my spine "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light."
Then everyone would wish everyone else Merry Christmas and we'd walk home at about 1.30 in the morning, often hearing birds singing by the light of the street lamps.
I'm not a believer any more, but I have to admire the sense of theatre. I sometimes go to "Midnight Mass" - so called - at my local Anglican Cathedral and always feel slightly cheated that it isn't really at midnight.

Sarah said...

A great post, Nathan. I like your evocation of the cultural background.I've never tasted Tamales - now I want to.
My grandfather's personal tradition was for him to greet his family as they returned from Midnight Mass (his wife and kids were devout Roman Catholics; he was an atheist) with one glass of sherry apiece to wish them Merry Christmas.
The sherry was in a large bottle which was only opened that once a year. The rest of the time it sat in a cupboard. It was the only alcohol in the house, lasted for ages, and as the years passed the rim of the bottle became encrusted with sticky dust.
His parents were alcoholics and he had painful memories of being dragged from his bed in the middle of the night as a small boy to play the flute for a houseful of drunken adults to his little sister's piano accompaniment. They both became professional musicians, and none of the 11 siblings ever drank.

Sheila Cull said...

"Not only white families," laugh out loud.

Cool tradition, fun reading.

Thanks Bransford!

ICQB said...

We lived in a small town in Texas for a few years. A family there taught us how to make tamles, and our church holiday potluck always featured tamales. This past summer we vacationed out west and I picked up all of the ingredients to make tamales (except meat, cheese,etc.) I'm thinking tamales for Christmas Eve.

Jan Priddy, Oregon said...

I live in the Pacific NW right on the coast where seafood is king. My mother always served Dungeness crab, usually in a salad on Christmas eve. In my childhood we had a roast on Christmas, but I don't eat most meat so make vegetarian tamales for Christmas dinner. My husband likes cranberry bread with orange peel and I make a bread pudding and smoked salmon fritatta for breakfast on Christmas day. And then after the gifts I begin making tamales.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Wow, Nathan, a great piece of writing. Honest, forthright - and delicious.

Would fit wonderfully in a book entitled, "Traditions That Take All Day To Make."

Fruitcake, certain soups, etc.

I just found out kolache, a Slovak-Polish pastry - is very popular in Texas! Who knew!

Krisula said...

There is a wonderful little children's book; Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto, beutifully illustrated by Ed Martinez. My kids loved it. When we moved to California 9 years ago I noticed homemade tamales would pop up everywhere in Dec. My kids had a beautiful association of Tamales and Christmas from that book and so we decided to learn how to make them. We do it every year now. What fun.

Anonymous said...

I loved reading all the comments on your Tamale blog. Bless your heart for sharing your story - if only everyone was raised by parents like yours we'd have world peace. I wrote because my Caucasian family always has sushi and miso soup Christmas eve and your story go me to thinking and touched me - thank you.

Elisabeth Black said...

Oh, yes. I'm forever trying to tame my sentimentalist streak, but I'm a sucker for traditions and their reasons.

This is a cool story.

Anonymous said...

We have Christmas tree traditions:

1. While the tree is letting out cold air, the Christmas Tree fairies are waking up, who will fly out of the tree as it warms and opens up and reside in our house for the holidays. It is a story we tell each year (that I made up).

2.We have a Christmas tape that came with a songbook that we used to dance to and one year when our daughter was little, we made a tape of this tape with us (mostly our daughter) singing along and the dog barking and with her m-c-ing. She was very entertaining. She sang the male deep opera voices as well as the high female voices. At the end she wishes everyone a Merry Christmas in a Santa impersonation. We replay it while we decorate the tree each year.

3. My husband writes witty riddles on all his tags.

4. We send something magical to a brain injured young man every year.

5. There often is a last hidden surprise gift.

6. We sing carols on Christmas Eve and I pretend to sing a certain tune in my own tune and with an Irish lilt.

Anonymous said...

We make things, tree decorations,dough-art, holiday decorations, etc. Last year we made stars that hang overhead in the living room and like them so much, we've kept the stars up all year.

When we get out old things, the handmade ones are especially fun to see again. We have, for example two pine cones and a snowman 3-D landscape on a piece of painted cardboard that our daughter made in 2nd grade. It's a little deflated now, but it just wouldn't be Christmas without it!

elfarmy17 said...

I've never had a tamale, but my neighbors (who are Latino...well, the dad is, plus the sons) are, and they're having a tamale party New Year's Eve.

S.D. said...

We eat Mexican and Tex Mex all the time at my house. American food is this side of a special treat during the holidays.

I love tamales. We have a little place near our house that make them. unfortunately, they're very popular and hard to get. So we eat lime tacos instead.
:D

Jeff S Fischer said...

I don't have any cherished traditions, so be it, but this post sent a ringing like a spider web, imagine that, through my mind and landed reverberating kindly on the great story Like Water for Chocolate. I think you have an adult story here. Like Tamales for Gifts by Nathan Bransford, that's the way I see it. Really, what do we get together to do? Eat. It's the one transcendent reason to get together. It's the one thing everyone can agree on. It sounds like you have all the research done. I would read that. I'm sorry if this sounds too optimistic, I get hijacked by the spirit about this time of year. It probably has no scientifically provable purpose, but it sure feels good. Hey! Tamales!

Other Lisa said...

We used to have Latino neighbors who brought us tamales for Christmas Eve. It's an awesome tradition, and I am very thankful that I grew up in a place where Latino culture is a huge, if not predominant part.

Other Lisa said...

I should also say—I'm posting from China and my access to blogs has been spotty at best, thanks to the Great Firewall, so I rushed my first comment—this is a really great post.

Cora said...

My favourite tradition is going home on Christmas Eve and putting up the Christmas Tree very late with my siblings. My brother and I usually pretend to be obnoxious lumberjacks playing games of one-up-man-ship on each other while we and make up ridiculous tales about how hard life was felling trees in the past. By the time we're ready to do the outside lights it's nearly time for Midnight Mass. This lunacy is why I'm a writer!

evelonies said...

when i was a kid, my mom always gave us donuts for breakfast. every other person i've ever talked to has some big special breakfast (things like cinnamon buns or pancakes/waffles/french toast/etc.), but we never did. i never thought anything of it till i heard other kids at school talking about their big christmas brunches. when i asked my mom why we had donuts, she said it was b/c she didn't feel like cooking, but felt like we should have something other than cold cereal. after all, she'd be the one cooking, and she deserved a holiday too.

my husband and i have had mormon missionaries over for christmas eve dinner for the last 4 years (we've been married for 5 years, and that first christmas he was in basic training) and given them care packages w/ things like shampoo, toothpaste, candy bars, hand sanitizer, chapstick, etc. we aren't doing it this year, which makes me sad, but our financial situation makes it difficult to feel anyone outside our family, as does giving away things like that. i'm hoping to be able to do it again next year though.

Jacqueline said...

All the women in my boyfriend's family get together and make a HUGE batch of tamales on the weekend before Christmas. Then they distribute them to all their family members, and everyone eats them during the week leading up to Christmas. They're Mexican, so it makes sense. This is a relatively new tradition for me since I'm a relatively new addition to the family.

My family used to throw a dinner party two days before Christmas for friends of the family and co-workers. The women would experiment with hors d'oeuvres and cocktails and things equally stuffy. This stuff wasn't made with love, it was made with the intention to impress people!

Anonymous said...

i attended a tamale making party this year - what a tremendous amount of work/fun involved!!! i have always loved to eat tamales, so it was great to learn all that was involved! including cooking the meat and soaking the corn husks and making the sauce, definitely a two day process! it was at this party i learned of the Christmas eve tradition of having tamales for dinner, so i may have to include this as one of my family's traditions...mmm good!!! feliz navidad, all! :)

Sylvia said...

My parents would always joke around with us saying the only reason they'd make tamales every Christmas was so that everyone would have something to unwrap :)
Thank you for the great read

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