For Latin Americans, making tamales is a Christmas tradition and every family has their own secret recipe. The basis is a corn dough, wrapped in a banana leaf or corn husk, and then steamed. Some are stuffed with pork, and some with beef or chicken. Other foods that may be a part of the filling are garlic, onion, potatoes, or raisins.
At first glance, they might seem simple enough. However, Tamales are different not just from country to country, but also from region to region and even from abuela to abuela. Their preparation is a process that takes hours and often days to complete, requiring nimble fingers to wrap the packages of dough and watchful eyes on them while they steam.
For many Latinos, the holiday season is synonymous with tamales. Mexican often opt for corn-husk-wrapped tamales, or wrap in banana leaves. And while most Mexican and Central American tamales contain corn-based masa, Puerto Rican pasteles don’t use any whatsoever, instead using a combination of ground yautía and green bananas.
The task of making them often require an entire team to help assemble them: each person was assigned a different role as preparing the masa, cooking a variety of meat fillings, softening up the banana leaves, carefully wrapping each tamal, and monitoring them as they cooked.
For those who don’t have the time or experience to make tamales, there is another chance: in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the phrase “tamale plug” (or dealer) populates the Facebook and Twitter hashtags of Latinos, and you need to find your dealer well in advance, with many people start taking orders around Thanksgiving.
Moreover, Tamales is one of the stars of the Mexican kitchen, a delicious treat made with masa and a filling of the tamalera’s (tamale maker) choosing. There’s beef, chicken, bean, bean and cheese, squash, sweet corn, and others.
The invention of the tamales is owed to the great Mesoamerican cultures of millennia past: the Aztec, Maya, Mixtec, Olmec, Toltec, and the Zapotec all took nourishment from the small banana leaf or corn husk-wrapped packets and each passed down their tamale customs through the generations. Interestingly, though, and to the point of your query, none of these ancient cultures were known to have celebrated Christmas. Some of them predated the birth of Christianity and none of them had even heard of Christmas before the Europeans arrived in the early sixteenth century. These peoples did observe their own traditions and celebrations—some of which involved sacrificial offerings (sometimes human) to their deities. There’s a theory that has such macabre gifts being replaced, at some point, with a much more civilized option: tamales.
The thinking is that over time tamales became associated with special occasions and as the population was eventually Christianized, the tradition was transferred to the most important holiday on the Christian calendar.
Images from web.