Hispanic Cultural Traditions for Christmas

Luminarias(Farolitos)

The tradition of luminarias in the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area dates back more than 300 years. The tradition began when the Spanish villages along the Rio Grande displayed unique and easy to make Christmas lanterns, called luminarias, to guide the spirit of Christ along their paths.

Luminarias today are often made of a brown paper bag, which has been folded at the top and filled with a few cups of sand and a votive candle illuminating the bag from within.

These lanterns have not always been made out of paper bags, the early versions were actually small bonfires of crisscrossed piñon branches which were built in three-foot high squares. Instead of making lanterns that would hang in a tree or from a roof, which would become damaged by the wind, small bags were made and placed on the ground, rooftops and along pathways. Luminarias are said to originate from Spaniard merchants who were impressed with the paper lanterns from the Chinese culture and decided to make their own version when they migrated to New Spain.

The name of the decoration is the subject of a long-running item of contention. Some insisting the correct term is farolito which translates as “little lantern”. While others are sure the correct name is luminaria which means “festival light”. Historically luminaria referred not to a paper lantern, but to a small festival or vigil bonfire; however, this distinction is not commonly made outside of northern New Mexico. Farolitos may be referred to as “luminarias” by some, but on Christmas Eve, when the farolitos(illuminated paper bags)are lit in streets of Santa Fe, luminarias (Posada vigil fires) are burning in the small mountain villages of Northern New Mexico. Luminaria bonfires made of square, stacked piñon and juniper wood can often can be seen in towns and pueblos across northern New Mexico. In the mountain villages and by the roadways they are built by local residents to welcome visitors and to commemorate holiday activities. No matter what you call them they are beautiful to see this time of year.

Biscochitos

These crisp cultural cookies are flavored with cinnamon and anise, and are a yearly tradition for many Hispanic families in the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area. These cookies are the result of centuries of influence brought by local and indigenous customs. These biscuits originated in Spain, where they were called mantecados, and date back to the 16th century, a time when the region of Andalusia experienced a surplus of grains and pork products. The roots of this cookie took on greater significance during Mexico’s Battle of Puebla in 1862, when Mexicans overthrew the French-backed Emperor Maximilian (Celebrated today as Cinco de Mayo). It is said that Mexican women wanted a commemorative cookie and used tin cans to cut the cookies to symbolize stamping out the French. The cookie symbolizes freedom and victory and has also become strongly associated with the Christmas season. They are often offered to the posadistas—the people who participate in Las Posadas, a nine-day celebration where a nightly procession re-enacts Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging in Bethlehem. Traditionally, the procession is always refused “lodging”, though the hosts often provide refreshments and biscochitos. Luminaria bonfires were lit to provide light and warmth for the posadistas.

Biscochitos Recipe:

 

Makes approximately 5 dozen thin cookies

The traditional shapes are stars, circles and crescents

 

1 cup lard

1 cup sugar

1 egg

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/4 cup brandy or rum

1 teaspoon anise seeds

3 cups all purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 cup sugar

 

Procedures

  1. In a stand mixer, cream together lard and sugar on medium speed until fluffy. With mixer running on low, add egg, vanilla extract, brandy, and anise seeds and mix until homogeneous. Add flour, salt, and baking powder and mix just until dough forms into cohesive ball.

 

  1. Form dough into two cylinders about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Chill for 2 hours or wrap tightly in plastic wrap and store in refrigerator for up to 3 days. For longer storage, freeze logs tightly wrapped for several months. Defrost in refrigerator for 1 day before using.

 

3.Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Combine sugar and cinnamon in small bowl and set aside. Cut cylinders into 1/4 inch disks and on ungreased cookie sheets leaving 1/2-inch gap between cookies. Bake until golden brown, about 12 minutes.

 

4.Dip rim of each cookie into cinnamon sugar mixture. Let cool on racks and store at room temperature in air-tight container for up to 5 days.

Tamales

Making tamales is an annual tradition and typically a big family endeavor throughout the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area. The tamale has been recorded as early as 5,000 B.C., possibly even 7,000 B.C. in pre-Columbian history. Initially, women were taken along in battle as army cooks to make the masa for tortillas and the meats, stews, drinks, etc. As the warring tribes of the Aztec, Mayan and Incan cultures grew, the demand of readying the nixtamal (corn) itself became so overwhelming a process that a need arose to have more portable, sustaining foods. This requirement demanded the creativity of women – hence the tamale was born.

Tamales are corn dough dumplings filled with meat and chili, wrapped in a corn husk and steamed. Tamales were prepared ahead of time and packed so they could be cooked over a fire or heated on coals. The process of making tamales takes so much time and effort, they have gradually become a holiday tradition where family members gather and make huge batches to share.

Pork Tamales Recipe

For the meat filling:

1/4 cup chili powder

2 tablespoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon paprika

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon onion powder

2 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon freshly toasted and ground cumin seed

2 pounds Rump Roast, untrimmed

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced

 

For the wrappers:

4 to 5 dozen dried corn husks

 

For the cornmeal dough:

2 pounds yellow cornmeal, approximately 6 cups

1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon baking powder

7 1/2 ounces lard, approximately 1 cup

3 to 4 cups reserved cooking liquid

 

In a small bowl, combine the chili powder, kosher salt, paprika, smoked paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper, black pepper and cumin. Divide the mixture in half and reserve 1 half for later use.

 

Cut the Rump Roast into 6 even pieces and place into a 6 to 8-quart saucepan. Add half of the spice mixture and enough water, 3 to 3 1/2 quarts, to completely cover the meat. Set over high heat, cover and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to low and simmer until the meat is very tender and falling apart, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Remove the meat from the cooking liquid to a cutting board. Leave the cooking liquid in the pot. Both meat and liquid need to cool slightly before making dough and handling. Remove any large pieces of fat and shred the meat into small pieces, pulling apart with your hands or using 2 forks.

 

Place a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat and add the vegetable oil. Once shimmering, add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are semi-translucent, approximately 3 minutes. Add the garlic, jalapeno, and remaining half of the spice mixture and continue to cook for another minute. Add the meat and cook until heated through, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.

 

While the meat is cooking, place the husks in a large bowl or container and submerge completely in hot water. Soak the husks until they are soft and pliable, at least 45 minutes and up to 2 hours.

 

For the dough:

 

Place the cornmeal, salt, and baking powder into a large mixing bowl and combine. Add the lard and using your hands, knead together until the lard is well incorporated into the dry mixture. Gradually add enough of the reserved cooking liquid, 3 to 4 cups to create a dough that is like thick mashed potatoes. The dough should be moist but not wet. Cover the bowl with a damp towel and set aside until ready to use.

 

To assemble the tamales:

 

Remove a corn husks from the water and pat dry to remove excess water. Working in batches of 6, lay the husks on a towel and spread about 2 tablespoons of the dough in an even layer across the wide end of the husk to within 1/2-inch of the edges. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of the meat mixture in a line down the center of the dough. Roll the husk so the dough surrounds the meat, then fold the bottom under to finish creating the tamale. Repeat until all husks, dough and filling are used. Tie the tamales, around the center, individually or in groups of 3, with kitchen twine.

 

To cook the tamales:

 

Stand the tamales upright on their folded ends, tightly packed together, in the same saucepan used to cook the meat. Add the reserved broth from making the dough and any additional water so the liquid comes to 1-inch below the tops of the tamales. Try not to pour the broth directly into the tops of the tamales. Cover, place over high heat and bring to a boil, approximately 12 minutes. Remove the lid, reduce the heat to low, to maintain a low simmer, and cook until the dough is firm and pulls away easily from the husk, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

 

Serve the tamales warm. For a ‘wet’ hot tamale, serve with additional simmering liquid. Store leftover tamales, tightly wrapped in plastic wrap, in the freezer, for up to a month. To reheat, remove the plastic wrap and steam until heated through.

Posole

Posole, translated as “hominy” is a traditional stew that has a long ritual history among the Aztecs. Since Maize was a sacred plant for the Aztecs, posole was made to be consumed on special occasions to celebrate the creation of man. Meso-Americans believed the god Quetzalcoati made man from masa (corn-meal dough). As a result, corn took on a religious significance. The kernels were soaked in a mixture of ground limestone (farther north, they used ashes to cure the corn) and water, soaked for several days then dried. Processing the corn in this way allowed the corn to be preserved for several years while keeping fresh taste and free from vermin, and allowed the release of a multitude of important nutrients to become accessible for digestion. In the “General History of Things from New Spain” Fray Bernardino de Sahagun mentioned during the festivities to honor the god Xipe, the Emperor was served a massive dish of pozolli-crowned with the thigh of a sacrificed prisoner. That’s right. Curiously, chili was left out of that recipe. After the conquest of the Aztec Empire cannibalism was banned and pork became the new meat added to the dish. Posole didn’t arrive in the Rio Grande Valley and the San Luis Valley until was brought by the Spanish in the 1600s. These cultures took the posole recipe and adapted it to make their own, endowing it with a life-affirming significance.

Posole Recipe

1 pound dried posole

1 quart water, or more

2 pounds pork, steak or roast, cut into ½ inch cubes

1 Tbsp salt or more to taste

2 cloves garlic, minced

Pinch of Mexican oregano

1 Tbsp cumin, or to taste

½ Caribe chili, or to taste

Simmer the posole in unseasoned water until it becomes soft and the kernals have burst open; it usually requires 1 ½ to 2 hours.

Brown the pork in a cold, well-seasoned frying pan, adding no fat or oil. Sautes until very browned then add the polole. Deglaze the frying pan with 1 cup water, stirring to loosen the brown bits sticking to the pan. Also add these to the posole.

Add remaining ingredients, adding one-half the cumin and cook the stew for 1 or more hours, to blend the flavors. Just before serving, add the remaining cumin.

 

For more information about cultural traditions in the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area visit our website at www.sdcha.org

 

 

 

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