One of my favorite Christmas memories is of a book my mother always read to us, Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto. Every year, my brother and I would look forward to hearing the story of Maria and the trouble she ran into when making tamales with her family for Christmas dinner.
Actually, what my brother and I really looked forward to were the tamales themselves! That night, we would always get to eat some delicious, steaming hot tamales.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but tamales have been a Christmas tradition in Mexico and in American families of Mexican descent for many years. And, many other American families, like mine, have now made them part of their holiday traditions as well.
Tamales are traditionally made of a corn meal, or masa, shell, holding a spicy meat filling. They are carefully wrapped up in a corn husk and then the whole thing is steamed, so the tamale comes out moist and hot. Traditionally, the filling is pork or chicken mixed with some chiles, but you can also find beef or even vegetarian versions.
Why they have become a holiday tradition is a little less clear. My best guess, and one I’ve heard from others, is that making tamales is so much work, people only want to go to all the trouble if they’re serving them for a special occasion. Many families have an annual tamale-making day, set aside for several generations to share the labor of making enough tamales for the whole extended family.
If you don’t have a family or friends to share the work, you can still enjoy this Christmas tradition. Just pick up a few dozen tamales at your neighborhood Brookshire’s. They’re already steamed and ready for you and your family to enjoy, so you don’t have to miss out on this wonderful Christmas tradition.