Mexican Tamales and Caribbean Pastelles: Blended Traditions

Advent calendar or not? Open a present on Christmas Eve, or wait for the entire load on Christmas? What are your must-haves on the holiday table? Traditions at Christmas are special to all to us. Each family has its own unique take on what those special activities might be. Most of us have our own family traditions and activities that can sometimes seem strange and different to our spouse. It can be eye-opening to find out what others did and expect to do during the holidays. But my husband and I have discovered that it’s fun to blend traditions from both sides, ultimately creating a combo edition of some activities from each of our backgrounds with a few new ingredients to boot!

I come from a large family of six children. My husband comes from a family of three children. I grew up in Texas where it was generally a little chilly at Christmas; he grew up on a Caribbean island where Christmas is always the same: hot! Apples and grapes were a special treat at Christmas in Trinidad because those fruits are imported. I always got apples in my stocking and never gave it a second thought because I was looking for candy! I never saw carolers at my door, but waves of small musical bands came by on Christmas Eve during my husband’s childhood.

At Christmastime, families in Trinidad add a fresh coat of paint to their homes and perhaps some new curtains. My Christmas gathering consisted of blood relatives who were my actual family. Trinidadian gatherings combine blood relatives and friends who are most definitely family. Uncles and aunties abound, which always confused me in those first years of marriage.

When we were first married, we exchanged a few presents, ate each other’s food, and just enjoyed the season. Now that we have children, we have formed our own new traditions and incorporate those of both our families and cultures.

Doing an advent calendar to countdown to Christmas was new to us, but we enjoy doing this with our kids. We have activities we do as a family or simple activities for the kids. Our traditions have grown and changed as our kids have grown and changed. Our family also chooses a new ornament each year. We always make cookies on Christmas Eve for us and Santa. We decorate a gingerbread house sometime in the season. Although my husband never had a stocking growing up, we have added a stocking as we have added members to our family.

Food plays a huge role in our holiday events. Delicious ham is a must for him, and I must have tamales. We also enjoy pastelles. These holiday treats are made with seasoned ground meats, wrapped in a corn flour, steamed in banana leaves, and tied with string. The texture and ingredients are uniquely Trinidadian. My husband has introduced us all to sorrel, a dark red drink that tastes a little sour, with a raspberry-like flavor, and is made from the petals of the sorrel plant (flor de Jamaica), or hibiscus plant flower. Atop the dessert table we set out sugar cookies, buñuelos, and black cake, a Trinidadian cake that is steeped in rum. Be careful when you inhale its potent aroma! 

We enjoy the religious aspects of Christmas as well. I have introduced my family to Las Posadas, which is the reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s attempt to find lodging as Mary nears childbirth. Our church also has a special mariachi mass to commemorate the day that the peasant Juan Diego had a vision of seeing Mary in Mexico. We attend church on Christmas Eve as a family. My husband and I both have memories of attending Midnight Mass as children.

On Christmas Eve, we get together for a late gathering with my husband’s family and friends to enjoy all the yummy food that he would customarily have in Trinidad. Of course, there are a few American dishes to boot, and usually some tamales appear. Parang music, a popular folk music originating from Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago, fills the air. Venezuelan migrants who were primarily of Spanish and African heritage carried this music to Trinidad and Tobago. When I hear parang, I always smile because these are songs sung in Spanish but with a West Indian accent so I never know what is being said. We usually end up jamming out to these songs and traditional American Christmas songs. 

They might be quite different from anyone else’s, but everyone has traditions that they add to the whirlwind of holiday events. I hope my children will remember ours fondly, incorporate some, and add new ones of their own when they begin their own families.

What is a family tradition that you have started with your family? What is one that blends traditions from your spouse’s family and your own?

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