Christmas Traditions, Family, Latino culture, Parenting

A 1932 Christmas

Once Upon A Time-Jose Chavarry,
Once Upon A Time-Jose Chavarry,

As we get older, we tend to appreciate things we took for granted, like stories from grandparents about their life and the childhood of our parents.

Family stories may be boring when we’re kids or when they’re repeated often, as can be the case when our parents enter their 80’s, but grandparents and parents who pass on their stories help children remember their heritage, their family strengths, and joyful times.

Mom shared her Christmas memories with us and through them, I relate back to the real reason for the season. This is one of her stories:

Christmas Treats
Christmas Treats


During the depression, if we received oranges and candy that was a great treat.

One Christmas Eve morning the firemen came to my barrio of Little Silao, in Pomona (CA). This Christmas was special, it was 1932 and the middle of the Great Depression. FDR was the president. 

Times were hard, but my family was lucky. My mother had a vegetable garden, and walnut trees in the backyard, rabbits and chickens too. We had enough to eat, barely enough for clothing, and no money for toys. I was four and wanted a doll more than anything.

We didn’t have a Christmas tree that year, but we did have a little table in the living room which mama decorated for the arrival of baby Jesus. She bent tree branches to form a small tent and added little green fans of pine over the branches to form a shelter. Tiny pinecones and red berries decorated the sides, pine needles were scattered at the entrance. An empty wooden manger sat in front of this small cave among the boughs. This looked very pretty and it smelled good too, fresh and woodsy.

I scanned the street in front of my house while perched on the wooden chair against the living room window. A shiny red fire truck turned into Newman Street, my street. Firemen, in their uniforms, rode on the running boards of the truck. They stopped five houses away from our place.

One of them climbed up to the top of the truck and handed blue, gold, and red boxes to another fireman and he handed them to another one who stood on the sidewalk.

“Here they come, here they come! Papá, mamá, Catarino, Jose, Concha, they’re coming.” I almost fell off the rickety chair.

I had to tell the others about the firemen and the Christmas gifts. I ran from room to room shouting their arrival. My brothers and sister ran out of the bedroom, my mother with baby Adela walked out of the kitchen.

“Maria, no grites. Sientense por favor.”

She didn’t like me yelling and told me to sit down.

Catarino was the oldest at 10 years, Jose was eight, Concha six, and the baby was one-year-old. Everyone sat down, except me. I ran back to my chair at the window.

“Here they come!” I shrieked and ran out the front door onto the sidewalk and everyone followed.

My cousins, across the street, were already outside jumping up and down shouting, “They’re here, they’re here.”

Maybe I would get a ball and jacks, real ones. Concha and I were tired of playing jacks with washed apricot pits and an old rubber ball. Maybe I’d get a real doll, one of my very own. That would be better than the paper dolls I cut out from the Sears Catalogue.

The big truck rolled to a stop right in front of my house. The fireman began calling out names, “Concha, Maria, Jose, and Catarina.”

Catarina? That’s a girls name. My brother was “Catarino.” He unwrapped the box and his smile disappeared. It was a doll! He held up the box to give it back to the fireman, but I ran towards him shouting “I want it, I want it.” I got to it before Concha did and ran back into my house.

The doll had on a beautiful red dress with black shoes and fluffy hair. I was so happy, I carried my doll the way mamá carried baby Adela.

For the life of me, I can’t remember if Catarino took the present meant for me or if the firemen gave him another gift. All I remember was that beautiful doll.

Now remember to share your family holiday stories with your kids and encourage your parents or grandparents to talk about Christmases past so you keep your family narrative strong and alive.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all of you and yours.

Christmas Traditions, Family, Mexican Holiday food

The Missing Mystery Gift

My Christmas Tree by brillanthues,
My Christmas Tree by brillanthues,


We have a tradition of opening gifts on Christmas morning at eleven o’clock at my mother’s home. We bring our gifts to my Mom’s very warm house which is filled with the fragrance of cinnamon and coffee and steamed roasted pork tamales.

Christmas morning is a big event for my mom who loves to decorate for every holiday. Nativity scenes, from mini to large, decorate the living room side tables, curio cabinets and fireplace mantle.

We’ve had every kind of tree from a Charlie Brown droopy pine to a snow flocked Noble Fir, but now the tree is a nice replica of a real one with its own multi-colored lights.

Mom and my siblings used to be the ones to decorate the tree, with those old-fashioned big bulb lights and silver tinsel. But that duty has been taken over by her grandchildren or great-grandchildren, who like to help their Nana.

Mom still does all her own shopping, scouring Costco (her favorite place) and several other stores from October to December to buy gifts for her oldest daughter to her youngest great-grandchild.

This holiday undertaking is quite a feat when you realize my mother is in her 80’s and legally blind.

And, it is understandable, that every year there is a missing mystery gift on Christmas morning.

After we have coffee and tamales, twenty or more of us crowd into the living room and wait while my mom decides who’s going to hand out the gifts. Then she sits and watches as everyone oohs and ahhs over her wrapping. She opens her own gifts last.

After the jumble of paper and bows make their way to the carpet, we always have one person who didn’t receive a gift from Nana or one of the boys who got a girls scarf and mitten set or pajamas.

Mom always seems surprised when this happens and goes to her bedroom to find her spiral notepad that contains her gift list. She checks it over and after pronouncing she had a gift for so and so and doesn’t know why it isn’t under the tree, she goes on a hunt through her closet, cedar chest, under her bed and the pantries.

We tell her not to trouble herself, the kids get way too many gifts anyway, and we return to the kitchen for more tamales or clean up the area while Mom goes on her gift hunting quest.

Pan Dulce-Mexican Sweet Bread,
Pan Dulce-Mexican Sweet Bread,

This happens every year and the missing gift is resolved by Mom making a note in her pad to buy so and so two gifts next Christmas, which settles the hunt and returns Mom to the kitchen to enjoy champurrado and pan dulce.

But the “two gifts next year” rarely happens because we always forget who had the missing gift in the first place and her Christmas list is on a new spiral notepad.

And as the years go by, we all hope that she will be around for the next holiday whether she buys gifts or not.

Ancho chile sauce, Christmas Traditions, How much masa equals how many dozens of tamales, Latino culture, Latino Family Traditions, Masa for Tamales, Pork Tamales

Five Important Ingredients for the Best Tamales

It’s a special time of year for Latino families throughout the country and the Americas.

Two weeks before Christmas is the time to pull out the Tactical Tamale Plan. After going through this ‘document,’ we found out that there’s a snag in the production. Our tamale masa connection is MIA, so I’ve had to post a Facebook request for prices for a pound of masa preparada.

The week before and after Christmas is usually tamale making time. Our tamale making fest is this weekend.

Although we may be Latinos we don’t all make the same kind of tamales. Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Guatemalans make different kinds of fillings, use coverings other than corn husks-ojas, tie and steam or boil the tamales in various types of utensils. 

My family stretches from first generation to third generation Mexican American Latino.We don’t do fancy tamales, only two types: pork in red chile sauce which we call “Red ones,” and Anaheim Chiles, cheese and tomatillo sauce, that we call the “Green ones.” However, I will experiment (on my own) with a Vegan one filled with vegetables or lentils. But this post concentrates on what I believe are the important ingredients for the best tasting pork tamales. 

Beverages from wine to champurrado, several spoons or butterknives, cheese/cracker plate, veggie plate,Christmas cookies, favorite aprons, tamale pots, and music need to be assembled before one starts spreading the masa

The amounts of ingredients aren’t listed because they vary with how many dozens of tamales you make. Just do a search for “how to make tamales,” and several recipes will spring up. 


  1. Pork Shoulder, pork butt, or loin. Boneless is best but more expensive. Roast with garlic cloves, salt, oregano, onions. Trim any fat, cut into one inch squares. (The one in the photo above is too chunky).
  2. Well kneaded masa: for 4 pound bag of Masa Para Tamales* use
    3 tablespoons paprika
    3 tablespoons salt
    3 tablespoons chili powder
    3 tablespoons garlic powder
    2 cups vegetable oil
    2 quarts pork broth *SKIP this step by buying Masa Preparada (prepared dough) from a Mexican grocery store or bakery. One pound of masa is enough for half dozen of tamales-30 lbs is 15 dozens of tamales.(Masa is that stuff that looks like mashed potatoes in the photo. Should be creamy or fluffy will spread well on the ojas).
  3. Chile sauce: It is worth it to make your own, but a little time-consuming and messy. The deep brown red color of the sauce in the photo above is just right. We use several dried Ancho chiles (called Poblano’s too), remove stems and seeds, soak them and garlic cloves for 30-45 minutes in 3 cups of hot water. Place all in a blender with two cups of the water, give it a whirl, and add salt. Heat two teaspoons of vegetable/olive oil into a large saucepan, add two teaspoons of flour into the hot oil and stir until browned. Add the chile from the blender. Simmer until thickened. Add the cubed pork meat into the chile. Let it simmer together for 30 minutes or so. (You can take a short cut and use Las Palmas red chile in a can also). 
  4. Corn husks or ojas. Remove the cornsilk and soak them in a large pot of warm water until soft. Costco, Winco, Smart & Final and most Mexican supermarkets have these dried in packages. The cheapest are not the best, often small, and full of holes.This is a good job for the kids. Drain and blot them dry.
  5. The best for last: You must share chisme (gossip), joke, laugh, sing, tell stories, reflect on the past,  while around the assembly line of spreading the masa, spooning in the pork and chile, and wrapping the tamales. You must teach anyone over five years of age how to do something to help the tamale makers. 

Our motto:  No Help, No Eat. Of course this does not include guests.

While the tamale pot steams the dozens of tasty tamals grab your favorite beverage, relax on the couch and chismear with your favorite person.

 Or watch one of my favorite holiday films, like “The Christmas Story,” and laugh with the kids.

Build some memories as you prepare your holiday treats.Christmas comes and leaves so quickly.

Christmas Traditions, Family, Latino family tradition, Mexican Cooking, Tamales, Wine and Tamales

The Tactical Tamale Plan

It’s tamale making time. The season is just like Christmas. You look forward to the joyful day with some trepidation. Why? Because of the time it takes for planning, buying, wrapping, steaming. See, just like Christmas.

After Thanksgiving my family, including my brother, sit down and draw up our tactical tamale plan. First we have to decide on a day. Who’s working, who’s not, who’s traveling, and all that. This is how the initial conversation starts:

1. How many pounds of masa do we need? We did 35 pounds last year, not enough. Yeah, not enough green tamales, let’s make more of those, and less of the red pork. No, more red, less green. Let’s do chicken ones. NO, stay traditional. How about sweet? Hmmmh, we stink at making sweet, let’s buy those. We need a vegan recipe (for the vegan son). Forget that, do those on your own. Okay, okay, let’s get back to how many pounds of masa.

2. We decide on 40 pounds: 10 lbs. red pork, 20 lbs. green chile, and 10 lbs. of chicken with tomatillo (mom makes a disgusting face like she’s throwing up-she hates chicken). Phone rings. Add 5 more lbs for nephew who can’t join us but will pay for additional tamales. Use pork shoulder, lean but not too much. How many dozens does 40 lbs. make again? Geez, this year someone write that down, please.

3. Where are we buying the masa preparada? L.C’s is $1.79, forget that, it’s masa not dark chocolate. But it’s smooth and covers the ojas so well. No, last time there was a fight in the line, ‘stas loca. Women rolling on the floor for a bag of masa.  P.V’s is $1.19. Heck no, it’s crowded 24/7 and we have to masarle (knead lard into it). What about your neighbor with the bakery? Okay bro, that’s your job.

4. Who’s making the chile? You? Maybe next year. Ancho? Poblano? New Mexican? Okay, Ancho.

5. How many can’s of green chile’s, how many pounds of Monterey Jack cheese? Buy the shredded one, not the 5 lb blocks. Who cares if they cost a little more, if you buy blocks you’re shredding the stuff.

6.  Olives, no olives? Some olives, yes, some.

7. Ojas from P.V’s? They’re a good price but the cornsilk is still on them and some are too little, we got to piece them all together and stuff. Winco in Fresno has  ‘pre-soaked’ ojas? No me dijas. And they’re big and pretty? Yeah, they’re all evenly cut and no cornsilk, soak for 10 minutes. Really? Buy us those.

8. We’re starting at 9 in the morning because that means 10. Make sure everyone does the prep work before we get together (8 pairs of eyes shift to the one who insists on buying cheese in a giant block).

9. What kind of munchies? The baked Brie at Costco is the bomb, would go well with Ramos Torres Vino Tinto. Bring a Cabernet, don’t forget white for mom. Somebody better bring salad too. Who’s bringing the See’s Nuts and Chews and Peanut Brittle? We gotta eat, those tamales take three hours to cook. We need to put the first batch in the tina (see above photo) by noontime, 1 o’clock by the latest. Remember, everyone over the age of 5 spreads. No work, no eat.

10. Redo all of the above two more times before December 15th.

The conversation is exhausting. Imagine the shopping and set up. On the appointed day we suit up in our various aprons and lay out the various utensils we use to spread the masa on the ojas. We inevitably have the argument of butter knife versus spoon as the best utensil for a smooth application, who spreads the best, who’s taking too many breaks along with the family gossip and remembrances of previous years of tamale making.

Someone starts a pot of beans and throws in onion and a jalapeno for flavor. We spread, fill, fold, and stack at least four tamale pots. After the first batch is done, we unroll, sample, and decide if they need to steam longer or not.Time to make some Mexican rice to go with the meal. The kitchen is filled with the earthy smells of nixtamal corn, spicy chile, garlic and roasted chicken. We’re done with eating salad, brie, and crackers.

Few things are a better sight to see than steaming tamales unrolling onto a plate with just the right amount of pork in red ancho sauce enclosed with a layer of masa that is not too thin and not too thick. They go well with  Tempranillo, Malbec, or Vino Tinto.

After a couple of pots of tamales are ready, we sit down with throbbing feet, red sauce stained aprons and sore backs. We fill our plates and wine glasses too. We count our blessings, say a prayer and dig in. Hard work, but like Christmas Day, it is so worth it.

photo by robjtak