60 years ago, my father’s family began a tradition. I don’t know if that year they intentionally created the tradition, or if they did something fun, and decided to do it again the next year, and then the next and then next. Sadly, my dad is no longer with us, so I can’t ask him. What I DO know is that 15 years later, I was born, and every year of my life, my family has made tamales on Christmas Eve. It’s a fun tradition that stuck.
Left: Dad taste-testing the meat. Tamale-making was one of his greatest joys because it brought our entire family together. Top right: My dad with his back to me, me, and my Grandpa Rodriguez. He managed the meat before dad took over. Bottom right: me, Grandma Rodriguez, and my little sister, Sophia.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a military spouse, so I don’t live in the same city as my parents. I got married at age 22, and since then, I have not lived in my home state, much less my hometown. However, every year, I have figured out a way to get back home for the holidays. Some years, it took a lot of money saving. Other years, it took a lot of coordination with my husband and his work. The past 2 years, we saved a lot and spent a lot, and we flew home from Okinawa, Japan. My family is made up of my best friends, so being around them is always one of the highlights of my whole year. I never laugh as much or as loudly as I do with them. This year, going home was not an option. Coronavirus, quarantine, and travel restrictions are just a few of the reasons why we could not make the trip back to Texas to see my favorite people.
I came upon the realization in October. I cried and cried. I tried to think of any way we could make it happen, because it would take something BIG to keep me from my family over the holidays, and something BIG did happen. Our world is suffering a pandemic. People are dying. People’s health will be altered forever. So little is known about the virus, and we are taking it very seriously. Going home would not be an option.
I had to make a decision. Do we treat the day like any other day and just not celebrate the holidays, or do we create our own happiness, keep the tradition alive, and figure it out? We chose the latter.
Even though I had been a part of the tamale making practice every Christmas Eve for my entire life, I was never responsible for every aspect of it. Also, I don’t know that I remember ever seeing someone actually make the masa. When I was a kid, I am sure my grandmother made it, but by the time I got to put my hands in it, it was simply to spread. Kids didn’t do the prep before the spreading. By the time I got to really be involved, we were buying the masa preparar. This meant that all we had to do was add extra manteca, chili powder, and salt. Needless to say, there is NO masa preparar sold on the island of Okinawa, so this would be new to me too.
I began ordering ingredients in mid-November. I began reading blogs and various recipes. I began considering what my holiday would look like. I looked back at pictures of us making tamales together, and I spent a lot of time smiling and crying. It was such a range of emotions. The holiday was quickly approaching, and I spent a little time and money trying to make our home look festive. (All of our Christmas decorations are in long-term storage. We had a weight limit moving out here, so the decor did not make the cut. It didn’t matter because we knew we would be going back to Texas for the holidays so we would just enjoy our families decorations.)
Christmas Eve Eve. December 23rd, 2020. We turned on Christmas music, tied on our aprons, and began the prep to the prep. We made our masa and started cooking the pork. Note to self: 2 bags of masa powder was used. Also, pork butts are so much better than loins. Find the fattiest pork you can find. I used 2 butts and 1 loin and wish I had used 3 fattier butts.
Left: masa step 1. Middle: tie on the aprons. Right: work the masa so it can sit overnight.
Christmas Eve morning. December 24, 2020, and the big day had arrived. Was I going to be sad, depressed, in the state of mourning? No, actually, I woke up with work to do. These tamales would be created, and I would do my part to keep the tradition alive. We added lard, chili powder and salt to our masa. We cut up our pork. We spiced it and put it on the stove. I spread while my husband rolled them. We each took breaks from the work to go run, and we sat down and had carnitas sandwiches when we were hungry. All of the prep was done in time to get ready for Christmas Eve mass, so we got dressed and went to listen to a beautiful message from a visiting priest. We hurried home and started the steaming process. The work was done. It was now time to sit, to wait, to enjoy each other’s company, and 3 1/2 hours later, we tried them out. They were good. Actually, they were MUCH BETTER than good. We quickly wrapped them up in bundles and delivered them to our neighbors. We didn’t need 40 tamales, and I remember being a kid and seeing my parents, aunts & uncles, and cousins divide the tamales. Some would be kept, but most would be shared. We kept about a dozen because they make excellent leftovers. After sharing our tamales, we went to bed because Christmas morning would come, and it would be time to Facetime our families. (My family would be making tamales, and his family would be excited to see us open the gifts they sent us.)
Left: Tamales wrapped up and delivered to all of the houses on the street. Middle: Mario and Mom doing their own tamale-making. Right: tamales before steaming.
A holiday that had approached with so much trepidation ended up being one of the most special holidays I have ever experienced. I was forced to live in the moment. I was forced to fight through a range of emotions. I was forced to create joy and happiness. I was forced to be reminded that I am resilient and am capable of being happy despite tremendous pain and suffering that the world is experiencing. I spent the holiday with the person who I have chosen to spend the rest of my life with, and it was so very special.
It was indeed a Very Merry Christmas.