O holy fiesta! A Mexican Christmas Eve

Corncob angel
This corncob angel watches over all.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

My parents remain the only ones of their respective siblings who have no grandchildren, so we -- Mom, Dad, me, a brother and two sisters -- spend most of our Christmas Eves with the family of my Tía Maria.

Eight of her 11 children live on the same street in Anaheim where she has resided for nearly 20 years, one street over from where I grew up.

For the holidays, her home is transformed into a throbbing hub of Mexican Catholicism -- wailing grandkids, a 10-foot-long Nativity scene with votives, saints and Magi mixed in with statues of various Marian apparitions, as well as action figures placed by grandkids.

I love my Tía Maria and her children and their children, but I’d still attend their festivities even if our relationships were cold.

What happens at her household is a banquet of Roman proportions, one where fifth helpings mean you just arrived and attendees get browbeaten for not taking home bags of leftovers.

This event signifies the culmination of a month’s worth of daily cooking sessions for my aunts and female cousins, sessions that can feed thousands but will suffice to see me through the winter -- not just as dinners or lunches, but as leftovers. Many, many leftovers. Good leftovers.

But before we eat tonight, Tía Maria will lead us through the rosary -- every decade, hymn and mystery. Thanks to this yearly ritual, I can say a Hail Mary in less than three seconds, an Our Father in five. Nothing against the Nazarene, but all I can think about while meditating on the Good News is how many tamales I can stuff in my gut before midnight.

Jews celebrate Hanukkah with latkes; Muslims break fast during Ramadan by digging into an iftar. But I can’t believe any culture in the United States celebrates its holy days better than immigrant Mexicans. We don’t just cook for the proverbial familia; we feed a village.

Don’t think I’m playing cute with clichés -- my mom comes from El Cargadero, a tiny rancho in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas that has hemorrhaged so much of its population over the last century that thousands of us live in Anaheim alone. El Cargadero is one of dozens of ranchos from the city of Jerez that have sent their residents across Southern California. Our story isn’t an anomaly; it’s reality for millions of Mexicans in California.

Some might rail “Reconquista”; I call it a movable fiesta. This grand migration means we must keep hundreds of people in mind for the holidays -- aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, cousins and comadres, padrinos and primos hermanos (close friends, godparents and distant cousins). Buying presents for so many people turns expensive quickly, so Mexican families cope the best way we can: by making and giving food.

Thanksgiving signals the start of the Christmas cooking season for millions of Mexican women like my mom -- we celebrated with red pozole. Just days later, I returned to find my parents’ house buried in plates. Mom had just finished a batch of arroz con leche, the Mexican version of rice pudding. Instead of spiking it with raisins and cinnamon, as is traditional, Mom mixed hers with pineapple chunks. I enjoy both versions, but the sweet tartness of the pineapple provides a juicy, welcome counterpoint to the plump rice grains in the super-sweet pudding.

She used every vessel possible to store the arroz con leche -- small bowls and massive trays, plates and pots, each assuming a specific serving purpose. Mom made visits to friends and sisters over the following week to drop off her prize dish; in return, we received a cornucopia of Mexican food -- tamales, pickled nopales, chiles and herbs picked fresh from home gardens, my Tía Maria’s homemade chorizo (we don’t ask how she gets a fresh hog to slaughter; we just nosh).

This pay-it-forward mentality goes on all year for Mexicans, but it reaches an alimentary apotheosis during December; after all, one never knows when a fresh batch of cousins might visit from the motherland.

The holiday halfway point for Mexican women is Las Posadas, a Latin American tradition that re-creates the search for lodging that Mary and Joseph experienced in Bethlehem and that typically happens during Advent. In Mexico, villagers celebrate Las Posadas for nine straight days, but Mexicans in El Norte usually boil it down to one.

We go to my Tía Maria’s house, where her grandchildren dress as shepherds, angels, Mary and Joseph and a big baby Jesus while singing hymns, much like their parents (my cousins) did when we were kids 20 years ago. They squirm through itchy costumes for the promise of bolo-- what Mexicans call showers of peanuts, pennies and Mexican candies (usually the inexpensive kind like Tomi’s, a hard caramel sucker, or Tootsie Rolls) tossed into the air by adults like the booty of a piñata, or passed out in brown bags. Sometimes, grown men get into the bolo mix as well -- hey, it’s Navidad.

We say the rosary for Las Posadas, but an abbreviated version. The big one, of course, is Christmas Eve, usually around 8 p.m. This is when other people from El Cargadero come, so many that the kneeling crowd spills out of my aunt’s ample living room and into the dining room, the kitchen, the porch. You can get your savior anywhere, but the faithful come to my Tía Maria’s to eat.

Our eternal reward is pozole in pots big enough to bathe a babe. My mom’s arroz con leche and her buñuelos, fried flour tortillas dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Dozens of tamales, stacked inside pots one on top of another so that they create a structure that looks like the Watts Towers. One cousin makes Zacatecas’ most traditional type -- pulled pork sluiced with red salsa derived from our state’s famous red chile. Another combines chicken with cheese and diced nopales. The wife of one of my cousins does a vegetarian version of cheese with rajas -- not because we’re PETA-friendly but because they’re delicious.

People grab four or five for the first round and sit down to eat and gossip. Eggnog gets passed around -- Mexicans call it rompopé -- but Christmas Eve is usually a chilly affair, so everyone sips the hot stuff -- canela (cinnamon tea), atole (a corn gruel that’s much tastier than it sounds) or ponche. This last drink literally translates as punch, but that doesn’t give it enough due -- a good seven fruits (apples, cherries, guayabas, oranges, apricots and others) boiled down into a tart, musky, scarlet-red drink. It makes a perfect partner for the dessert tamales -- masa sweetened with sugar and pineapple, raisins, coconut or even strawberries.

The party ends around 11:30 at night, as families get people ready for misa del gallo -- Rooster’s Mass, otherwise known as Midnight Mass. Afterward, everyone returns to their homes lugging leftovers, eats some more and goes to sleep.

Christmas morning begins with phone calls: “My son is going to your house to drop off” whatever a woman specializes in. My other aunts and uncles, with their own large families, host their own Christmas Eve feasts -- time to trade. Perishable stuff, such as desserts and soups, gets devoured first; my siblings and I set aside tamales to pass out to grateful co-workers and bosses. Any leftover tamales go in the freezer, where they last into the summer.

As with most immigrant traditions, I’m sure my Tía Maria’s Christmas Eves will cease once God calls my aunt to her reward. Already, some distant relatives don’t make appearances as often as they used to. And my assimilated generation finds it easier to buy Navidad food premade at a restaurant instead of sweating over meals for hours every day for weeks. So I will stuff myself extra-full today, savor every bite and thank the lord for blessing me with a nebula of women who can make even a Great Recession seem like an eternal holiday.

Arellano is the author of “Orange County: A Personal History.”

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