I grew up in a home where making tamales was part of the Christmas tradition. December 24 is my birthday. But it was also one of the busiest days of the year at home. The day always included making tamales in the morning, going to church for the Christmas program in the evening, walking through our small Latino town in Central California singing Christmas carols after the church service, and opening gifts at midnight. The tamales would be tasted at various points throughout the day, but the formal meal was usually eaten after going out and singing and before opening gifts.
Making tamales was an all-day activity: preparing corn leaves, spreading the masa on the leaves, cooking the meat, putting the meat in the masa, folding the tamales, and finally cooking them. The house smelled great all day long. The smells stirred our appetites, but also connected the Christmas story to the smell of tamales.
December 24 was also an important ministry day because my parents were pastors. There were usually people in and out of our house during the day, eating tamales, but also hearing the good news of the gospel. This was a day for helping people in need, providing food, counseling, accompanying, and hoping in the God who sent Jesus Christ into the world.
Years later, as an adult serving in Guatemala, I learned to eat Guatemalan-style tamales, which were wrapped in banana leaves. These were also tied to Christmas celebrations. On December 24 we would share the table at church with our brothers and sisters and the poor of the community, eating tamales together in celebration of Christ’s birth. Meanwhile, one of our neighbors would have spent the day making tamales to share with friends. After going to church, we would join our neighbors in our local park to watch people burn firecrackers, wish all our neighbors a Merry Christmas at midnight, and then thank God together. Well past midnight we would get together to eat the tamales, celebrating God’s love in Jesus Christ.
Because making tamales is labor intensive, it is usually the poor, and often the undocumented, who make and sell them today. As I eat tamales in Los Angeles this Christmas season, I am reminded of their work and sacrifice. But I also know that many are selling tamales in the hope of providing for their families. They work hard believing that God will provide, particularly in this time of hope.
Tamales, family, friends, and living out the Christmas story all belong together for me. It is at the table where we share with those we love, but also with those who need to experience God’s love. Tamales remind me of why we celebrate. But they also connect me to what God is doing in the world. So I continue to eat tamales in anticipation of God’s future banquet feast, in which tamales from all over the world will be shared in celebration of the one who became one of us and who gave his life for us.
+ Read more from our series of Advent reflections here.