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Jan Siegel by Jan Siegel

One of the great aspects of the holidays is the food and the family traditions that go with each recipe. This year, because of the virus and the lockdown, gatherings will be different.

Usually, we think of Christmas with ham, goose or turkey. But in many Mexican households, the holiday tradition is for tamales.

Tamales, which are made from corn, were usually sent with hunters, travelers and soldiers for portable food. They were the first wraps. The word tamale is probably a derivation of the Aztec word tamalli. As far back as 10,000 years, Mesoamerican faiths believed that God had crafted the human form from corn, and since corn was the substance of life, consuming it became a religious experience.

Tamales are a way of preserving and celebrating Mexican culture. Unlike the Anglo adage that too many cooks spoil the broth, or there are too many cooks in the kitchen, the Mexican tradition of making tamales is the more, the merrier. It is a family affair.

Tamales became part of the Mexican celebration of Los Posadas, which is the annual commemoration of Mary and Joseph’s trip for shelter before the birth of Jesus. Tamales can be made in advance, can be made in big batches, and are easy to transport once made. 

But tamales are not easy to make. They are labor-intensive. First, there is the washing and soaking of the corn husks.  Then there is the making of the dough. The meats and beans have to be seasoned before being rolled into the dough. It is not uncommon to have a tamalada—a tamale party. That way, you can work like an assembly line, with each person doing one job of preparation. And this was one way how family stories were passed down from one generation to another. 

With families at home, this may be a good time to have a tamalada and start a new holiday tradition. There are many places on the internet to find recipes and to find demonstrations of how to make the tamale. 

Like the Christmas tree, ham became a popular holiday food through German culture. Wild boar was a popular food for feasts for many European cultures in early centuries. Germans ate ham during their Yuletide celebrations, a festival honoring the mythical Wild Hunt and praying for fertility. Norse cultures also ate boar as a tribute to Freyr, a god of fertility, prosperity and fair weather. As Christianity spread across the world, the Christmas ham became a world tradition. 

Whatever your family traditions, spend a Moment In Time this season and reflect on how the traditions came into your household. And this just might be the year to try making some family traditions. Generations from now, your family will be telling stories about the year of the virus. 

Have a happy and healthy New Year and stay safe.

Jan Siegel was a 33-year resident of San Juan Capistrano and now resides in the neighboring town of Rancho Mission Viejo. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years, has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 26 years and is currently the museum curator for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.

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