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.
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.
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.
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?