​Christmas Traditions

Jan 4th 2022

Christmas is a time of traditions and while we all respectively think of traditions in terms of familial traditions, it is fascinating to look into the historical contexts and connections to other cultures. If I were to tell you that the United States, México, and the Philippines share Christmas foods traditions, would you believe it? If I were a betting man, I would guess the roll of dice would say ‘no’ more often than ‘yes.’ Well, they do and I will highlight three traditional Christmas foods here found in the United States, México, and the Philippines – tamales, buñuelos, and atole – and the influence of Spain to have played the biggest influence of these traditions spreading throughout these three countries.

Before delving into the foods, it is important to understand the shared colonial histories between the United States, México, and the Philippines. Roughly 500 years ago, Spain conquered and colonized the Philippines and México and through the mid-19th century (a period of roughly 350 years), parts of present-day Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah were Mexican territory – not yet part of the United States. In this context, within the Americas and more specifically in México, we discuss the foods before the arrival of the Spanish as Mesoamerican foods and after the arrival of the Spanish as mestizo foods – mestizo meaning of mixed origins in Spanish.

Tamales were the first dish made from corn in Mesoamerica, dating back to as early as 8000 BC. The word tamal derives from the Nahuatl tamalli, which means steamed cornmeal dough. In the pre-colonization period, tamale filling consisted of proteins like turkey and Muscovy duck (both native to Mesoamerica), as well as cacao amongst other native Mesoamerican ingredients. With the arrival of the Spanish, the Spanish introduced foods and ingredients from Europe – chickens and chicken eggs, cows and therefore milk and butter, sugar etc. – many of which found their way into creating new mestizo tamale recipes. While initially food of the servant class under the Spanish rule – a stomach filling dish that could be easily transported in its banana leaf or corn husk casing, the Spanish soon exported tamales to their other colony in the Philippines. Local ingredients in the Philippines soon found their way into the tamales including rice flour and coconut milk. In the United States, tamale recipes were spread from the original Mexican territories through indigenous groups to other indigenous groups in the United States like the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes that inhabit Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee – although the Choctaw and Chickasaw call their tamales banaha incorporating local ingredients like deer meat. Furthermore in the Mississippi Delta, African Americans developed a spicy tamale known as the ‘hot tamale.’

While tamales have a long history dating back to Mesoamerica, another Christmas tradition in the United States (mostly in hispanic communities), México, and the Philippines - the buñuelo – is purely a mestizo invention from Europe. Buñuelo and all other variations of the word in Spanish and Judaeo-Spanish derive from Old Spanish, which itself derives from the Germanic Gothic language, and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European. One of the earliest recipes known for a derivative of the buñuelo comes from the Roman Cato the Elder’s recipe named ‘Balloons’ in his recipe book Da Agri Cultura from the second century BC. At it’s most basic recipe, buñuelos consist of milk, baking powder, egg, and flour – all ingredients brought by the Spanish to México, while simultaneously exporting the recipe to the Philippines. The supplemental ingredients that many have come to love and expect with their fried dough treats – cinnamon and anise – have logistical origins even older dating back to the Silk Road. Interestingly, what a complimentary trade of culture from the Mesoamerican culture to the Spanish – tamales for buñuelos? Of course, the Spanish exported both of these recipes to the Philippines, as well as the final traditional Christmas food of the discussion.

Atole coming from the Nahuatl atolli is a Mesoamerican hot beverage consisting of corn and masa dating back to 450 BC. It is said that the great Aztec emperor Moctezuma enjoyed a derivation of Atole, Champurrado, sweetened with aguamiel – the sap of the Maguey – and a bit of chili powder. Sadly, Moctezuma’s demise is intertwined in history with the arrival of the Spanish to México in the early part of the 16th Century. Fortunately the legacy of Moctezuma lives on in a variety of ways, one being in the spreading of the recipe of his favorite beverage – atole - to the Philippines courtesy of the Spanish. Like the export and subsequent modification of the tamale recipe, atole or as it is better known as champurrado in the Philippines has been modified to incorporate local ingredients like coconut milk and rice flour. Furthermore, champurrado in the Philippines has been modified to incorporate other cultural flavors enjoyed in the region.

Today, tamales, buñuelos, and atole (or champurrado) are enjoyed as Christmas traditions in the United States, México, and the Philippines. Due to the Spanish period of colonization, the trade of culture has led to the shared Christmas traditions. I wonder how many people knew the roots of this Christmas staples. Now when you enjoy the upcoming holidays, you’ll have something exciting to share with your loved ones! And, keep any eye out for the tamales, buñuelos, and atole recipes to follow – the ingredients can be purchased from our website!