Big Jim: 'Pancho Claus' and Christmas tamales

2013-12-24T00:00:00Z Big Jim: 'Pancho Claus' and Christmas tamalesBy Jim Griffith Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the casa

Mamá, she was busy preparing the masa

To make the tamales for the big tamalada…

(From “Pancho Claus” by Lalo Guerrero. Used with permission.)

The only odd thing about these lines is that Mamá waited so long to make the dough for her tamales, and that she seems to be in the kitchen alone.

In most households I know, tamal-making happens several days or even weeks before Christmas, and tends to be a cooperative family affair.

In Mexican culture, Christmas and tamales are almost inseparable. Everyone gets together to mix, smear, fill, roll, and stack the tamales in an assembly line.

And while the tamales are being made, a lot else gets done as well. The family comes together, family events and gossip are shared, decisions may be taken.

While the eating of the tamales is important, the making of the tamales binds the family together as well. As Diana Kennedy put in her wonderful book The Cuisines of Mexico, “Tamales are made for an occasion, and an occasion is made of making them.”

What kind of tamales?

In Tucson, Christmas tamales are usually filled with meat cooked in red chile broth.

In some families, sweet bean and other kinds of tamales are made as well, but the standard here is what are called “red tamales.” They’re filled with beef, unless someone in the family has shot a deer or an elk.

From there, family tradition takes over. Some families put whole olives in their tamales, others use pitted olives, still others no olives at all. Carrots can be added, Sinaloa style.

Once the tamales are made, they are shared. Tamales are given away by the dozen, for Christmas is indeed a time of gifts. (They are a subtle way of demonstrating to one and all that, while everyone makes tamales, Mamá’s are the best.) Of course, enough are saved for serious tamal-eating sessions, often beginning on Christmas Eve, after midnight Mass. Making and selling are also a good way for groups and individuals to earn a little extra money, and so during this season they are ubiquitous.

As nobody but myself has said,

Deck the halls with boughs of hollys,

"Tis the season for tamales"

Merry Christmas – I’ll be back on January Sixth.

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About this blog

Jim Griffith is the former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, and co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself. He’s also the author of seven books on the folklore and folklife of our region, most recently “A Border Runs Through It.” His books can be purchased at tucson.com/wildcatgear.

If you have questions or suggestions for Jim Griffith or this blog, e-mail bigjimgriffith@gmail.com