The loving hands that made our Christmas tamales

I have a relative who, every time we visit, says: “Oh, while you’re here, we have do such-and-such! It will be our new Thanksgiving/Christmas/yearly tradition!” And while it is always quite a nice idea, only one of the “traditions” has stuck. What’s more, my husband and I always just look at each other and smile when she says it, because we’re both of the belief that you just can’t say something and make it so—you can’t force a tradition. I can’t quite think of a way to put it that doesn’t sound trite, but a tradition should just happen, and feel right. Right?

So this time of year, like I’m sure most of us do, I stop and reflect on our holiday traditions. When exactly does a tradition begin? Some are passed down from our families, to be sure. These often make me wistful, as I am so far from my family at Christmastime, and my grandparents and my father have passed away. And since my children are so young, it feels like we haven’t had enough Christmases yet to really cement many of our own traditions yet.

On the other hand, that’s what’s so exciting. We get to slowly let our own holiday traditions develop, and we get to include aspects from both of our cultures. Some of our emerging traditions are as American as apple pie, some are Costa Rican, and others are borrowed other from other countries, because they just feel right. So here are some of the things we’re doing this Christmas!

  • Making tamales. My entire life, Christmas was about eating tamales. My parents had their hands full running a business and Christmas was the busiest time of the year, so my mother never made them at home, but we got them from friends and relatives, because you could always count on people to come by with tamales. I learned how to make them from one of my tías when I was nineteen. My husband and I have made them every single year since we got married. Our tamaladas have been different every year. This year, I invited friends that included a Colombian, a New Englander we call la peruana, a Peruvian, and a friend who was in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica. They were stunned at the type-A side of me that they had never seen before but that apparently comes out full force when I supervise my friends making tamales—I’m never going to hear the end of it. What can I say, I’m serious about my tamales. Just like my tía. Saturday’s tamalada was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Friends, tamales, children playing together, and good beer and wine, which my Abuelita never had at her tamaladas.
  • Eating pupusas. We eat tamales on Christmas Eve, that one’s a no-brainer. Last year, though, on December 24th, most of the DC area was barely starting to emerge after digging itself out of one of many snowstorms. We went out in search of supplies to tide us over during the next storm, and stopped by a pupusería for about ten pupusas. I bought the boys lollipops (or colombinas, I suppose) at the Colombian grocery store next door and they proceeded to get goo all over their faces as we waited at our table, while a show in Spanish blared on the television and we watched people come in out of the snow. On Christmas Day, while the kids opened their presents, we drank coffee and ate pupusas for breakfast in our pajamas, and it was so relaxing and delightful. For all my talk about how traditions should just happen, I informed my husband that we’re doing the same thing this year. And although the lovely man who waited on me at the pupusería gave me a business card and told me that next time I could call and order ahead, I don’t think I want to. I want to buy my boys colombinas and sit at a table unhurriedly and people watch, because last year was sheer perfection.
  • Filling our stockings. I know, this doesn’t sound like a Latin American tradition, right? But when I was growing up in Costa Rica, my American father was in charge of keeping his own cultural traditions going. We always had stockings, huge, quilted stockings with our names on them that his mother made for us. As we grew older, the gifts under the tree became less important. In fact, I think some years there were no actual gifts under the tree at all, but we all delighted in filling each other’s stockings with tons of goodies, and it was one of the highlights of Christmas.
  • Listening to villancicos. We listened to a lot of Christmas music when I was growing up—mostly the Time-Life Treasury of Christmas. My mother loved it, and my father, again, was passing down some of his own favorite music to us. But we owned a single cassette called Navidad en España. It was music sung by a children’s choir, and we jokingly called them “los chilloncitos”—the screechers. We listened to it over and over again every year. Much later I bought it on CD, and then I nearly cried when one of my children broke the CD a couple of years ago and I had foolishly not backed it up. I begged my brother to look for it and was so relieved when it was still available. So now I play it and sing the traditional songs at the top of my lungs every time, and boy, is that ever going to embarrass my kids eventually.
  • Visiting the National Christmas Tree. Again, this last one isn’t a Latin American tradition. But we did this last year, and it was cold and snowing and absolutely beautiful. We walked for a long, long time and then ducked into a chain restaurant for burgers and fries.

And as I reflect on the holiday traditions of my childhood, I fondly remember of the place I grew up. So though I want to incorporate as much of that into my own family’s traditions, my children aren’t growing up in Costa Rica. They’re growing up here, and it’s a wonderful, wonderful place. And it’s a place I want them to remember fondly when they’re grown up as well, so that they have a wealth of experiences to draw from when it’s time for them to start their own traditions.

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