Tamales at Christmas
December 24, 2003 11:57 PM   Subscribe

When I was in college, I dated a mexican-american girl for a few years and I loved spending christmas at her house because it meant fresh tamales (her dad would set aside special veggie ones for me and her). I know it's a tradition of some sort, and I've googled around but I can't really find the story behind the tradition. Can any members of la raza clue me in and tell me how it started and why tamales are made on christmas? Does it have anything to do with religion, myth, and/or history, or is it just a thing people do?

Being areligious, I miss out on ritual backstory all the time, but I enjoy learning about it and observing similarities among different sects and beliefs (I'm a big fan of comparitive religious studies). I had no idea there was a reason behind latkes until someone asked about the basics of Chanukah here last week. I enjoy both latkes and tamales around this time of year and wondered if there's a similar story/reason behind tamales.
posted by mathowie to Food & Drink (9 answers total)
Tamales are from the aztecs and i believe the oldest traditional food in mexico, dating back thousands of years (try googling for tamales and aztecs). They were a traditional food of celebration or feast. You'll find tamales not only at christmas but at other yearly festivals. In most of mexico you can of course buy or make tamales all year round - they dont have necessarily a strong christmas connotation that way.

The christian christmas was most likely pasted on to another old pagan festival. It is not clear which one but it does seem likely that since this was also when aztecs celebrated the return of their god of war - Huitzilipochtli - that that was fused with the modern tradition.

I've had more tamales than i can handle this week. They are served not only on christmas day but also during all the posadas - a week long re-enactment of the trials of joseph and mary - and even during the pastorelas - medieval european passion plays.

The posadas, by the way, are where pinatas were introduced. Now, they seem to be more associated with birthdays. Still, candy is given away to the children during the posadas and the adults are served tamales and atole.

Tamales became bound to christmas more tightly than other festivals i think just over migrating tradition. Since mexicans dont celebrate thanksgiving, christmas also plays that role of bringing family together.

And so, especially among the mexican immigrant population, christmas means tamales means home.
posted by vacapinta at 12:55 AM on December 25, 2003

mathowie - Once upon a time, I found myself adrift on the streets of Mexico City and Puebla, selling books door to door and eating tamales. I was rescued from a potential and naive disaster by a lawyer with two children whose husband - a rising political star - had recently died of cancer. Later, I almost died myself on Mt. Popocateptl. Returning to the US, I was greeted by a Texas twanged quip - "Mexicans. They all steal...."

So I have no qualifications at all with which to answer your question, but -

Tamales are sure a favorite food during "La Dia De Los Muertos" - and this is close to what you're looking for

Corn, I'm fairly sure, signifies the life-giving potential of the Earth for much of the New World - it was until recently the most significant grain staple crop [ see Jared Diamond or Alfred Crosby's "The Columbian Exchange" ] and so it would represent fertility, renewal, and blessing.
posted by troutfishing at 1:06 AM on December 25, 2003

if "vegetarian tamales" means leaving out the meat, then they're called "humitas" here in chile (and just about the only veggie "fast food" around) (just in case you ever see any for sale - but i guess maybe s american food in the usa uses mexican names...) (incidentally, they're a seasonal food (unfrozen) down here - perhaps corn doesn't grow in the winter this far south? - but not associated particularly with xmas (as far as i know)).
posted by andrew cooke at 4:27 AM on December 25, 2003

Tamales certainly are not a Christmas-only affair, but sweet tamales are. I don't know how the tradition got started, but FWIW.
posted by adamrice at 8:14 AM on December 25, 2003

---------- Recipe via Meal-Master (tm) v8.04

Categories: Vegetables
Yield: 4 servings

8 Ears of fresh corn
With shucks on
1/2 ts Salt
1/2 ts Fresh ground black pepper
3 tb Butter
1 ts Sugar
1 Onion chopped
1/4 c Milk (evaporated is best)
1 Tomato peeled, seeded,
& chopped
2 Eggs beaten

Cut corn off of the cobs. Save cobs & husks! Take the
largest husks, put into a pan of boiling water to
soften. Heat the butter in a pan, add the onion, &
cook til soft. Add the tomato, salt & pepper, & sugar
and cook for 5-6 minutes. Add the corn, milk, & eggs
and cook for 10 minutes. Stir constantly while this
step is in progress. Remove the husks from the water
and dry. Place 3 Tblspns of the corn mixture on the
center of each husk. Fold the sides of the husks over
to form a small package. (use 2 leaves if you need to
do so) tie with string. Place cobs in the bottom of
the pot of boiling water and place the humitas on top
of the cobs. Cover pot for 30 minutes. Serve hot!
I like to add a bit of garlic to mine. I also use the
Sriracha or Tuong hot sauce too!

posted by Fupped Duck at 10:47 AM on December 25, 2003

Tamales are sure a favorite food during "La Dia De Los Muertos" - and this is close to what you're looking for

The tamales they are talking about in those two links are what my family calls "tamales nejos" They are nothing like the tamales you get in the US and are more specific to the Purepecha Indians (coincidentally, that is the area I grew up and my fathers paternal grandmother was a Purepecha indian)

Tamales nejos are darker as they are made with ash and wrapped in fresh leaves as opposed to dried husks. Traditionally, they are also eaten dipped in a sort of sauce called Churipo. They are delciious and are personally my favorite type of tamal.

There are in fact dozens of different types of tamales. Speaking to my uncle, he confirms that his grandmother in mexico made tamales which are more like what are called today Nacatamales and are more associated with countries in Central America. As you'd expect the tamal tradition is highly regional and variations have arisen over the years.

Tamales nejos are probably among the most authentic but as I said they are peculiar to the Purepecha Indians who were in fact a sort of parallel civilization to the Aztecs.
posted by vacapinta at 11:48 AM on December 25, 2003

Christmas Tamales... whimper...
I'm trying to throw together a Christmas dinner for my Father the Grinch and the best I can get him to accept is Green Bean Casserole, and YOU had to bring up Christmas Tamales.

And that reference to latkes was gratuitous.

So, Matt, how about an Eat MetaFilter page?
posted by wendell at 1:11 PM on December 25, 2003

Matt, as explained to me during my eight-year stay in New Mexico, the reason tamales are associated with Christmas is mostly utilitarian.

December is the time for the annual pig-killing, or matanza (Google translation of a Spanish oral history page). Matanzas ritualized the event, turning the act of killing a pig into a celebration of Christmas and the upcoming year. Neighbors would take turns hosting the matanza throughout the month, so there would be one pretty much each weekend. The killing would take place in the afternoon or evening, then the meat would be carved and immediately smoked or salted. One whole pig would be cooked throughout the night, and all of the men working on preserving the rest of the meat would eat various dishes all night long as they worked. (Some spanish recipes translated by Google can be found here, and here's one of my favorites, chicharrones). In the morning, the women would take over and make blood sausages and other delicacies.

Anyway... tamales. The traditionally best tamale filling is made from the head of the pig. The head is placed in the cauldron, covered with water, and then boiled over the fire until the skull is clean. A surprising amount of meat is claimed this way, and it all goes into the tamales. Since this meat is only available after the matanza, right before Christmas, it was used to make the year's best tamales and served for the Christmas day feast.

The matanza has all but died out in the last fifty years, but if you're travelling through rural New Mexico or Mexico during December, you may be able to find some families carrying on the tradition. And they are typically open events, so if you're willing to help them do the work all night, they'll likely let you.

Of course, if you're a vegetarian, you might not want to.
posted by ewagoner at 7:29 AM on December 26, 2003

What time of the year is the corn harvested and distributed in Mexico?
posted by thomcatspike at 4:33 PM on January 2, 2004

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