Tamales are the celebratory food for all special Mexican occasions—even funerals—but they are especially associated with the Christmas season. A cousin once walked into my restaurant right before the holiday and asked, “Have you made your tamales?” That’s like asking a non-Hispanic American: “Have you put up your Christmas tree?”
For us, the Christmas season starts on December 16th, when the nine days of posadas begin. These are reenactments of the night Joseph and a very pregnant Mary went from inn to inn looking for lodging. By that day, most people have their nativity scenes all set up. Some are simple, but others are incredibly elaborate, to the point of depicting the whole town of Bethlehem!
During the posadas, a procession carries the statues of Mary and Joseph to different pre-agreed houses. At each, Mary and Joseph beg to be let in and people inside rebuff them with particular songs, called villancicos. Finally, the last house lets them in and joy fills the air. There is a piñata for the children, calientitos (hot toddies) for the parents and tamales for everyone.
Making tamales is usually a family affair, with the grandmother or mother providing the family recipe. When I was a child, we made my mother's tamales de chile colorado. Our ritual began months earlier, when mother started fattening the pig with the leftovers of her delicious meals. No slop for this baby. The freshly-butchered meat tasted slightly like bay leaves, mother's favorite herb at the time.
On December 23rd, the cowboys’ wives would come in from their outlook posts and start making chicharrones to render the lard. They’d place a large piece of pork butt on our black wood stove, prepare the red chile sauce, and grind the nixtamal (dried corn soaked or lightly boiled with cal, calcium hydroxide, to remove the outer skin) for the masa (corn dough).
Then the tamal-making began in earnest, in an assembly line: One person would dry the pre-soaked corn husks, another would spread the masa halfway up the husks, another would add the filling. The next would fold and put the tamales in the steamer. The work was made light by the stories told, the laughter, the singing and the anticipation of the meal to come.
And I’ll let you in on a little secret. If you won’t have anyone to help right at Christmas, you can make them ahead of time, cover them tightly, freeze them raw, and steam them from frozen in about an hour.