Mexican Christmas Beyond the Tamale

Of all the foods of Mexico, not one comes to mind more often at Christmas time than the corn-husk-wrapped tamal. Being warm, filling, and benefiting from the many hands present at family gatherings to make light of the laborious preparation, it isn’t surprising. Yet it is the tamal’s constant presence at Posadas Navideñas, nine nights of processions, caroling, piñatas and most importantly, sharing food with guests, which have forever tied it to the image of a Mexican Christmas.

Learn what these festive nights mean, and which other foods join tamales in the celebrations.

Since early in the days of the conquest, the Christian traditions of celebrating the birth of Jesus co-mingled with Aztec winter solstice celebrations. These included a clay pot piñata, filled with decorative figurines in offering to Huitzilopochtli, the bloodthirsty god of the sun, war, and human sacrifice, to rain down on the ground when the pot was broken open. Seeded breads were shaped in the form of this same god, dyed red with vegetable coloring or the blood of children, baked, stabbed in the heart, and cut into tiny pieces, one each for each resident of the city of Tenochtitlan, and heartily eaten in honor of the god.

The Christian Spanish colonists, being only slightly less bloodthirsty, transformed these holy celebrations into the Posadas Navideñas, beginning on December 16th and carrying on till the 24th, a day for each of the days Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem — and a night for each they took shelter in a posada, or inn. Though it began in the religious centers of colonial Mexico, these festivities easily spread to everyday people, tying together families and communities by literally opening doors to one another.

The peregrinos, pilgrims, participating in the posada carry candles to light their path on a journey to find shelter. Coming to a closed door they sing out:

En nombre del cielo (In the name of heaven)
os pido posada (we ask for shelter)
pues no puede andar (for she cannot walk)
mi esposa amada (my beloved wife).

Those inside, warm and comfortable respond:

Aquí no es mesón (This is not an inn)
sigan adelante, (keep on going,)
yo no puedo abrir (I cannot open)
no sea algún tunante. (it may be a scoundrel)

The song carries on, begging for shelter, threatening with a beating unless the pilgrims leave the door, until it is discovered who exactly they represent with their song, and the door opens, rewarding them with shelter and a star-shaped piñata filled with edible treats to destroy in celebration. Peanuts, oranges, caramel candy, and sugarcane filled the clay pot at the heart of the piñata, gifts from the hosts for the hopeful pilgrims, willing to be blindfolded and swing a decorated stick wildly at the multicolored moving target they can no longer see.

The excitement of destroying the beautiful piñata may seem like the climax of the posada, yet serves only as a warm up to the feast of tamales, atole, ponche navideño, and buñuelos that follow.

Tamales are, of course, familiar to anyone with a love of Mexican food: steamed dried corn husks holding pillowy corn dough, made light with whipped lard, filled with anything from pollo en salsa verde, carne de rez or puerco en chile, pineapple, sweet beans, et cetera.

The other foods may be less familiar. Atoles could easily be considered a drinkable sweet tamal, as it is frequently paired with them. Corn dough is moistened into a slurry, stirred into piloncillo (unrefined brown sugar) sweetened water, and cooked until thickened. During Christmas time, the preferred spices for atoles are vanilla and cinnamon. At other times, bananas, blackberries, and chocolate are used to flavor the drink.

Served along with the corn drink, the warm and fruity ponche navideño seems more like a sugary fruit salad than a beverage, including chunks of sugarcane, guava, apples, prunes, and, most importantly, tecojotes, the fruit of the Mexican hawthorne. Almost inedible when raw, the cooked pectin-rich fruit thickens the punch, and imparts a tart apple flavor. It is difficult to find raw in the United States, requiring the use of frozen and syrup-preserved tecojotes.

The buñuelo provides a simple and satisfying finish to these festive nights of candlelit processions, singing and piñatas. Crispy lard-fried flour tortillas are flavored with anise, every bite scattering the dusting of cinnamon and sugar on every surface with edible glitter — a sweet reminder to be found at a later hour of an evening well spent with family and friends.

The origins of the Posadas Navideñas are indeed deeply religious, but have over time transformed into rituals of sharing and celebrations of community. This aspect of the rituals of the cold days of December is worthy of being enjoyed by anyone — Mexican, religious, or not.

Many of the churches serving primarily Mexican neighborhoods in the Valley of the Sun hold posadas, including the Saints Simon & Jude Roman Catholic Cathedral of Phoenix, at 6351 North 27th Avenue. For more information, call 602-938-7282.

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