Growing up, my family never had the Christmas celebrations that I saw in the movies. Besides living in Los Angeles where the closest we’ll ever get to snow is two hours and a mountainous drive away, I noticed that our parties had pozole, tamales, and champurrado. We weren’t eating turkey or Christmas pudding like the white families in classic holiday films like Home Alone or Elf (and we didn’t have Latinx Christmas movies yet!). But somehow it made it that much more special, like we could be fully, beautifully, and unapologetically Mexican and feel good about our differences. But there were some things that we skipped out on, like hand-making our tamales because it was too much work or going to midnight mass because it was too late. This year, we decided to relearn such traditions, while making space to shake things up and make Christmas our own.
One new thing we decided to try this year was switching when we would celebrate Christmas. Like most Mexican families, we honor and recognize Nochebuena, otherwise known as Christmas Eve. This is yet another blend of Spanish and Indigenous cultures dating back to colonization. Before the conquistadors came, Indigenous communities celebrated the winter solstice (Dec. 21) a few days ahead of what is now Christmas. Afterward, this blended with the Spanish tradition of going to church for nine straight days until the 25, culminating in a practice that prioritizes the importance of Christmas Eve over Christmas Day.
So while Christmas Day is the date of the party for most families, Christmas Eve comes with much more excitement and anticipation, featuring lots of our traditional food, games, and songs. For us, no Nochebuena is complete without my entire extended family singing along to the karaoke version of “Feliz Navidad” by José Feliciano and eating tamales by the dozen. Nor is it really Christmas Day without walking around with a food baby, taking naps, watching movies, working on puzzles, and just being in a somewhat comatose state.
This year, we’re going against the grain by doing the opposite of Mexican culture by having a quiet, intimate party on the 24 for our closest relatives, then having the grand celebration on Christmas Day starting in the morning. When our family has become bigger than ever with new relatives and new babies, we figured it was easier for everyone to start the festivities earlier rather than waiting until the evening.
Still, I did struggle with the idea at first—after all, how we could just change a system that’s been around longer than any of us? That is arguably one of the most important parts of our Christmas celebrations? But I’ve since come to realize that it doesn’t make us any less Mexican or any less a family. In a Latinx community that often defines our Latinidad by how much we’re connected to our roots or look “the part,” that was something really important for me to remember.
That said, we did also take the time to re-learn a different ancient Mexican tradition: hand-making our own tamales. There’s something to be said for finding the perfect “tamale lady” in the street to make the yearly batch but I have yet to feel something as spiritually fulfilling as making them myself and later, eating them knowing I played a part in bringing them to the table. Together with my aunts and cousins, we formed an assembly line with one person in charge of spreading the masa, popping in the potato, vegetable, and chicken fillings, wrapping them, then tying the ends and the middle. That’s right—we went old school!
I was responsible for tying the knots and I definitely have that much more respect for people who do this regularly for a living. At one point, we had to re-do all the ties on three dozen tamales because they weren’t tight enough and kept falling off, leaving the insides to start squeezing themselves out. It was hard, tiring work, standing on my feet and feeling my fingers cramp up at the worst times. But it was also rewarding to see our huge piles of tamales at the end, not to mention laugh at the number of times I accidentally got sprayed with chicken broth because my aunt was squeezing the tamales too hard. Having made them a few times now, I know that they aren’t hard to make for no reason. Thanks to the Aztecs who invented them thousands of years ago, tamales were designed to bring large groups of people together around a table, to unite them, from assembly to cooking to consuming them. Now more than ever, I believe they were made with families in mind.
With Christmas only a few days away, there’s still a lot to be done. Besides wrapping a few last-minute gifts, we still have to finish making our beef and cheese tamales, and put the last touches on our Christmas traditions. We’ve never been as Catholic or even as religious as other Mexican families but putting up our nativity scene on the mantlepiece is an essential aspect of our living room. We may not be heading to church any time soon, but it’s still our way of honoring our deceased relatives who found comfort in the religion they were raised with. No matter how we celebrate, we’re still our ancestors’ wildest dreams.
This Christmas more than the others, that’s something that’s been really important for me to learn, that there really isn’t one “right” way to celebrate Christmas as a member of a larger culture. Even people within Mexico don’t all celebrate the holiday in the same way, so why should we? Especially during a pandemic, what matters most is being with family we haven’t seen in years and gathering in a way that makes everyone attending feel safe.
The past three years have been nothing if not an example of changing routines or doing away with them altogether. Who knows, we might go back to honoring Nochebuena the usual way next year. For now, what’s still true is that I’ll be surrounded by food, family, and love—and that’s one tradition that’s not going away any time soon.