When you think of traditional Christmas foods, tamales might not be the first that comes to mind.
But for many Latin people and other residents of the Americas, it’s a staple at Christmas. Every year countless families gather to make and enjoy these tasty bundles of steamed masa and fillings.
But how did this tradition start? The answer, which points back several thousand years, may surprise you.
Let’s dig in!
What Are Tamales?
Tamales are a traditional Mesoamerican dish that goes back thousands of years. Many cultures across Central and South America make and eat tamales.
There are dozens of recipe variations, but all tamales include a dough stuffed with various fillings. The filled dough is steamed inside a corn husk or banana leaf wrapper, depending on the regional practice.
Tamales are a very labor-intensive food. Soaking the wrappers, cooking the meat ahead of time, and steaming all require close attention. It’s no surprise that tamale-making is a family-wide project for some people.
This dish dates back to 8000 BC. Tamales were initially offerings to the gods of ancient Mesoamerican societies. Today they possess a special cultural significance for Central, South, and Latin Americans.
Do Tamales Come in Many Different Varieties?
Just as no two countries are exactly alike, no two tamale recipes are exactly alike. Even families from the same community may possess wildly different versions. Many of these recipes are passed down from generation to generation.
Tamales can be sweet or savory. Savory recipes might call for shredded beef, chicken, pork, and vegetables, while sweet ones may include bananas, chocolate, and raisins.
Mole, sour cream, and cotija cheese are a few popular toppings. Some people like theirs topped with spicy salsa or fruit.
Even the dough used inside a tamale varies from country to country. Although most recipes use corn masa, one Puerto Rican variety doesn’t use any dough whatsoever.
The endless possibilities make it difficult to define what a tamale is. If nothing else, this traditional food is a testament to the vibrant mix of cultures and customs in this part of the world.
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Why Is It a Tradition to Eat Tamales on Christmas?
In ancient times, tamales were a sacred dish. Mesoamerican societies believed the gods made humans from corn, so corn-based dishes were a natural choice for ritual offerings.
Farmers grew and harvested corn at specific times of the year for this purpose. This traditional meal was an intrinsic part of life during the time.
When Spanish conquistadors invaded the Americas, they brought Christianity with them. The invaders banned traditional rituals such as human sacrifice, along with many other aspects of ancient worship. Indigenous communities were slowly converted to Catholicism. Many spiritual practices were lost in the process.
Tamales were one tradition that survived. Since indigenous people believed the gods made humans from corn, tamales with corn masa came to represent the sacrifices from ancient times.
Communities that once worshiped multiple deities now celebrated the Virgin of Guadalupe. But they continued to celebrate Christian holidays with tamales regardless.
The Christmas tamale tradition is widespread across the Americas, including the American southwest. People from California to Texas celebrate the holiday with this dish by preparing it themselves or purchasing tamales from a “dealer.”
The Fun of a Christmas Tamale Party
These delicious corn-wrapped packages aren’t very big. But even so, they require a lot of time and effort to make. The tamale-making process involves multiple stages and steps. That’s why many families throw “tamaladas,” which are traditional Christmas tamale parties.
Preparing to host a tamalada is a full day of work in itself. If meat fillings are used, they’re often prepared ahead of time. For instance, traditional pork tamales call for pork stewed at a low temperature with onions and garlic. Salsas are frequently made ahead of time too.
On the day of the tamalada, guests take on specific tasks. Some will soak, dry, and distribute corn husks, while others will mix and prepare the masa. Another group spreads filling onto the masa and folds each tamale. And, of course, someone has to steam the tamales.
Although tamaladas involve work, they’re also celebratory parties. Participants eat, drink, and take breaks to chat and relax. Music playing in the background is a must. And the grandmother or matriarch of the family will often pray over the tamales as they steam.
What Goes With Tamales on Christmas Eve?
The only things more customizable than tamales are the countless sides, toppings, and drinks you can serve alongside them. The possibilities are endless!
Cilantro rice cooked in chicken broth is a great complementary side for savory tamales. Black bean soup is another traditional choice and a good option for vegetarians. If you want to keep the corn theme going, consider serving elotes too.
Tamales toppings don’t stop at mole and salsa. Guacamole is a no-brainer option for both meat and vegetarian recipes. A quick slaw made from jicama, carrots, and cabbage adds a nice contrasting crunch. For sweet tamales, try adding some fresh fruit.
Traditional drinks like horchata pair nicely with tamales of all varieties. If you have a sweet tooth, make yourself an agua fresca by infusing water with a bit of sugar and some fruit of your choice. Sometimes, of course, a Mexican beer is all you need to wash down a good meal.
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Will You Eat Tamales at Christmas?
The Christmas tamale is a beautiful tradition passed through generations for thousands of years. It’s no surprise that one of the oldest known foods is still so popular today.
Whether sweet, savory, vegetarian, or meat-filled, these scrumptious bundles bring joy to all who try them. Knowing the work and love that goes into creating tamales makes them even more special.
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