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The Texanist: What’s the Deal With Tamales and Christmas?

A Dallasite wonders how something so tasty, so filling, and so pre-Christian came to be a holiday staple.

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Illustration by Tim Bower

Q: I’ve lived in Texas my whole life. All forty-three years, right here in the Lone Star State. Except for the first couple of years, when I didn’t know better, I have been a lover of all Tex-Mex foods. Strangely, until this year I never knew that tamales had some sort of Christmas connection. What exactly is the deal with Christmas and tamales?

Charley Hodge, Dallas

A: Among all the world’s gastronomic traditions, is there one that is more delectable than that of Mexico? The Texanist, an admittedly rabid devotee of most all foodstuffs originating south of the border, is certain that there is not. One of the stars of the Mexican kitchen—as well as the Tex-Mex kitchen—is the tamale, a delicious treat made with masa and a filling of the tamalera’s (tamale maker) choosing. There’s beef, chicken, bean, bean and cheese, squash, sweet corn, and on and on and on. The tamale options are infinite. The Texanist’s favorite is the classic pork variety. Glistening and slippery, they are the quintessential tamale and the Texanist is known to devour fistfuls of the slick little devils throughout the year. Mmm-mmm! Washed down with a Big Red or some cold Mexican suds, there’s nothing like it.

The debt of gratitude for the invention of the tamale is owed to the great Mesoamerican cultures of millennia past. The Aztec, Maya, Mixtec, Olmec, Toltec, and the Zapotec all took nourishment from the small banana leaf or corn husk-wrapped packets of goodness and each passed down their tamale customs through the generations. Interestingly, though, and to the point of your query, none of these ancient cultures were known to have celebrated Christmas. Indeed, some of them predated the birth of Christianity and none of them had even heard of Christmas before the Europeans arrived in the early sixteenth century. These peoples did observe their own traditions and celebrations—some of which involved sacrificial offerings (sometimes human) to their deities. There’s a theory that has such gruesome gifts being replaced, at some point, with a much more civilized option—tamales. The likes of Xochipilli, Tonacatecuhtli, and Ah Kinchil must have been very grateful for the change. The Texanist knows he certainly would have been were he an ancient god.

The thinking is that over time tamales became associated with special occasions and as the Mexican population was eventually Christianized, the tradition was transferred to the most important holiday on the Christian calendar. Which is why, come the holiday season, it is common for Mexican, Mexican-Texan, and Mexican-American families and friends to gather in kitchens big and small for annual tamaladas, or tamale making parties (read here about the Ruiz family’s 45-year tamalada tradition). The fruits of such gatherings, the dozens upon dozens of delicious tamales, are then divvied up and dispersed to friends, coworkers, and loved ones far and wide. Christmastime in Texas means it’s also tamale time in Texas. Can the Texanist get a great big hallelujah?

Still, as interesting as this history is, the important thing, the thing that really matters, the thing to appreciate is not how this tradition came about as much as that the tradition came about. Is the Texanist right?

Feliz Navidad and may god (and all the tamaleras) bless us, everyone, with lots of tamales.

 

 

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  • Art

    European colonization began in 1492, when a Spanish expedition headed by the Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus sailed west to find a new trade route to the Far East but inadvertently landed in what came to be known to Europeans as the “New World”.

  • Art

    Tamales are an American staple. They are made during Christmas in Central and South America, too. Really? Really.

  • pcnotpc

    I can imagine that each tamal represents a small gift from the giver, which is then opened to much delight and enjoyed in the spirit of the season.

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  • Richard Reynolds

    Those of us who are of a certain age and who are native Texans well remember the tamale as the premiere, sometimes the only Mexican food that everyone knew about. In many small towns, including my own, there would often be vendors with small bicycle driven bins and a sign that said, “Hot Tamales.” For most of my childhood this was Mexican food. I can remember when people started talking about enchiladas and tacos, also,which I am sure were available down in south Texas, but to the rest of us and for the longest time, the tamale with a peppery chili sauce was the staple of Mexican dining. I am always amused when I read an outlander’s historical novel that features people dining on such fare as fajitas and burritos in Mexican restaurants in earlier periods. One might as well have expected to find yogurt and tofu on the menu.

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  • Kozmo

    Good tamales are hard to find (mediocre tamales are a dime a dozen, altho’ not literally). Great article. Viva las tamales! (Or is it “los tamales”?)

    I will miss them when we relocate to the northern climes, altho’ given the growing hispanic community in southern Wisconsin, I bet we can still find New Year’s tamales when we need to. (Note: New Year’s, for good luck, not Christmas, was the tamales tradition I remember in Corpus Christi.)

  • Larry Kilbury

    Merry Christmas to the Texanist, a wonderful writer.

  • Oscar

    In Mexico, tamales are eaten usually for breakfast, sometimes in festive occasions: baptisms, first communions. I grew up in Mexico City and I never knew anyone who had tamales for Christmas or New Year’s Eve.

    • elobo22

      Thanks for informing us. Is it maybe a tradition in other parts of Mexico? If not, guess it is a Mexican-American tradition.

      • rickthenailer

        I live in Nuevo Leon, and we always have tamales for Christmas, along turkey and other festive fare. At January the 6th, we have the kings’ bread and the ones that get the little dolls are supposed to make or pay for the tamales at Candles Day in February.

  • elobo22

    Good article, except the use of the misnomer tamale instead of the correct singular tamal.

  • May you and your ‘god’ leave US. We will keep our tamales as weccelebrate the birth of our God.

    Wayne

  • Roseana Auten

    Hi Texanist, You could have made this a little easier on yourself by asking a tamalera about the significance of tamales during Christmas. The tamalera in our lives tells us, “It’s so you have something to unwrap.”

  • pwloft

    On a recent summer stay at a Port Aransas beach house, we heard ice cream truck-like commotion on the street just outside our rental. Sure enough, it was a tamale van, with a young mother and her kid selling their homemade treats.