As anyone that grew up in a Mexican or even Central American household knows, Christmas time is dominated by the traditional tamal. This iconic food dating back to mesoamerican times has come to be the de facto food for the holidays and many variations exist from sweet to savoury, using corn leaves to banana leaves. Typically people in Mexico make this food out of corn flour, pig fat and spread it over a corn leaf; later fillings of chicken, beef, pork or vegetables (often spicy of course) are added and each tamal is wrapped up nicely in order to steam in a large pot. While I can’t speak for everyone, my family always made hundreds of tamales, with some being reserved to cook for New Year. Yes there’s nothing quite as magical as biting into the soft steamy corn-flavor of a tamal, in effect it tastes like Heaven but don’t eat too many because they are really heavy and I imagine, probably not that healthy.
Unlike Mexico people in Ecuador tend to have turkey or pork as the primary dish of Christmas though they too celebrate on nochebuena (Christmas Eve). As is typical, Ecuadorians prepare rice in different forms to compliment the meat and also have pan de pascua (Easter bread) as either a snack or dessert.
However Christmas is more than just food, despite how important food is. Latin America typically retains much of the Catholic character of Christmas through the emphasis on good deeds for the poor, spending time with family and the usage of religious iconography like the pesebre (manger) or nativity scene which traditionally was the main decoration though the Christmas tree has grown in popularity. In Ecuador, like in Mexico there is still an abundance of nativity scenes in usage as decorations for churches public offices and of course as decorations in the family home.
Another custom are the posadas (Christmas procession) that recreates Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging in the city of Bethlehem. The procession often goes on for 9 days with participants singing the traditional posada song but being rejected every time until the final day. It is here that participants are invited in and given treats and in the case of Mexico there is usually a piñata involved.
Up until recently the tradition of giving gifts on Christmas did not really exist in Latin America but this consumerist tendency has begun to make serious inroads. El dia de los reyes (Day of the 3 Wise Men) would be the day when children would receive gifts in previous times as the three wise men, rather than Santa Claus, were said to bear gifts for children. Today though we can see that a mixture of U.S. traditions and Latin American ones are used leading to gifts being received on either or both days. In Mexico la rosca de reyes ( circular bread topped with fruits) is eaten, with little plastic figures hidden within symbolizing how Jesus had to be hidden from King Herod who infamously ordered the massacre of newborns to kill the messiah. The person who finds the little Jesus in the rosca usually has to treat the others to a dinner on the 2nd of February making every slice of the bread a potentially compromising action.
In the end what we can gather is that Christmas Eve is the real day of celebrations while Christmas Day is more of a day recovering from sleeping late after singing, dancing, eating and drinking. Moreover Christmas is intrinsically tied to family, childhood and religion yet something as simple as an iconic food can take you back with every bite.Feliz Navidad.