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The Mexican Tradition of Nochebuena

Homemade tamales

Homemade tamales

Unlike America's Independence Day which passed by all but unnoticed while I was in Cuenca, Ecuador in July 0f 2008, or the Dieciocho celebration that I did not know existed until I spent a September in Santiago, Chile (I quickly learned that Chilean independence was exciting enough to deserve a month of parties), many religious holidays are recognized in major cities all over the world.

This year, however, I had no special expat plans to make for I spent Christmas in the USA.

Nevertheless, the first of my own family's traditions are rather out of the American ordinary. On Christmas Eve, my dad's family, or six of his nine brothers and sisters and their families including mine, get together to celebrate Nochebuena.

In Mexico, this is the last night of the posada. Although I myself have never experienced them, the Posadas take place on the nine days preceding Christmas and are processions of the reenactment of Mary and Joseph's search for shelter in Bethlehem. Each night, groups of the town's residents are led to a different house for the culmination of the posada, not surprisingly, a fiesta. On the last night, Christmas Eve or Nochebuena the focus is now on the family which means one last posada, a scrumptiously large meal, mass (or Misa de Gallo), and an exchange of presents.

My father has lived in the United States since he was 18 years old and yet bits and pieces of these traditions have never been lost. We usually meet around eight at night to have dinner together. Wine and spirits (usually tequila) flow amongst the adults, as appetizers of ceviche (a salad made of raw shrimp in lime juice combined with tomatoes, onions, spices, and chiles) and tostadas (hard tortillas) are followed by tamales, the once ‘food-on-the-go' for the warriors of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. My aunts spend all day making the tamales which are made from the corn-based masa dough, filled with pork, vegetables, and spinces and wrapped in a corn husk to be steamed until hot.

Pozole - a common Mexican comfort food

Pozole - a common Mexican comfort food

Then, for the main course, young and old enjoy the quintessential Mexican comfort food, pozole. This is a stew native to my father's Jalisco that is made up of a hearty pork broth, laced with chili and augmented with hominy, a derivative of corn. It is then garnished with a homemade hot sauce (beyond any Tabasco most Americans have ever enjoyed), cabbage, radishes, and more of the fresh-squeezed juice of a lime.

Dessert varies from flan (a caramel custard) to classic brownies or chocolate-chip cookies. And then we wait, and wait, and wait. My cousins and siblings pass the time watching holiday films and playing games while the adults sit at the table and chat. Finally, when the clock strikes twelve we exchange affectionate “Feliz Navidad's” and gifts.

At this point, the Mexican celebration ends and the festivities that follow: sleeping for a short time, waking up to more presents from Santa ;), going to Christmas mass, and spending the day with family and friends take place similarly to those of most of those Americans who celebrate Christmas, but each year I always appreciate my family's unique cultural twists more and more.

And I'm sure I'm not the only one. Which international traditions have joyously wiggled their way into your American celebrations?

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Tuesday 8th of June 2010

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