Tracing the Holiday Tamal Tradition

misssk Family, Handmade, Mesoamerican, Scratch cooking, Spirituality, Texas, Tradition Leave a Comment

In Texas, the holidays mean tamales. Along with Christmas trees, sparkling lights, and sweet treats, I will forever associate the abundance of tamales—making them, craving them, seeing them, eating them, buying them—with the holiday season.

As the wonderful aromas of warm masa, stewing chiles and tamales de dulce emerge once again this year, I found myself wondering where tamales’ holiday association came from. To be sure, tamales are enjoyed at all other times of the year here and in Mexico, but they come out full-force in the wintertime, especially as Christmas approaches. Might there be an old folkloric explanation?

The Sacred Role of Corn

The prevalence of holiday tamales here in Texas comes from the influence of our Mexican Texans and Tejanos (as is the case in Southern Cali and other areas of the country with their Mexican communities). In Mexico, the tamal is thought to date back to ancient Mesoamerican times with the Olmecs, Toltecs and Mayas.

In her article on ShesCookin.com, Priscilla Willis points out an important clue for tracing the tradition’s roots. She cites an article from Seattle PI which explains the spiritual and ritualistic role that corn or maize played in the lives of Mesoamericans.

The Popol Vuh, an important Mesoamerican sacred text, tells a tale of humans being crafted out of corn by the gods. My friend, Maya daykeeper Carlos Cedillo, elaborates that in fact, the gods tried each of the four different colors of corn before finally combining them all to create the perfect human form (yellow for the skin, black for the hair and eyes, red for the blood, white for the bones).

The article posits that when the Spanish arrived and challenged the Mesoamerican practice of sacrifice, they began to offer tamales instead, as the closest representation of the human body. When I think about the structure of a tamal, I can easily see the connection. A casing of thick, protective masa “skin” protecting the meat, sweet or cheese filling, all wrapped up in a corn husk cloak. Hopefully that image won’t creep you out next time you’re digging in.

The ancient sacred status of the corn used to make masa and the longstanding connection between tamales and worship or celebration paint a possible picture of how the tradition came about.

Tamales and Las Posadas

And then there is the connection with Las Posadas. For nine nights between December 16 and 24, Mexicans, Mexican Americans and even some South Americans form a procession and go door-to-door, singing songs and reenacting Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging on the night of the Nativity—one night for each of the months that Mary carried Jesus. The search ends with a flowing feast full of rich foods—tamales being essential among them.

The Las Posadas tradition is thought to have come from Catholic missionaries in the 1500s, who sought to replace Mesoamerican religious rites celebrated at the same time of year. They used biblical reenactments as a way to popularize the Nativity story. One of the tamal’s coveted qualities was its portability, so it’s possible that they’re something of a symbol for Mary and Joseph’s journey. Whatever the case, it seems to be the role of the tamal in Las Posadas that cemented it to the holiday season.

While the traditional savory varieties are used to celebrate many different religious ceremonies, tamales de dulce are typically reserved for this time of year. Rather than pork and chile or vegetable fillings, they are made with raisins or other dried fruits and a sweet masa flavored with strawberry or pineapple and sometimes a colored sugar. I have fond memories of eating these with a warm cup of atole, a sweet drink made with masa, at big Christmas parties as a kid.

It is memories like those—of childhood, of family, of faith, of our ancestors—that give tamales their true value. Not only delicious and filling, they are a symbol for love, exchanged among and between families and often made in commune. Wherever their festive roots began, today they have branched out and into the foodways of the Americas and Southwest, leaving a legacy of celebration in their wake.

Originally published for PK4 Media.

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