Tamaladas y Posadas

Mexican Christmas Traditions Alive and Well in Austin

The Olé Mexico Association lead their fourth annual posada procession down East Sixth Street, stopping at homes and businesses
photograph by John Anderson
I bought my first batch of holiday tamales last weekend from a stand under a tent at the corner of East Seventh Street and Pleasant Valley Road. A neighborhood church organization had prepared them as a fundraiser and enthusiastic salesmen were flagging down busy weekend shoppers with cries of "Red hot tamales, get your red hot tamales right here!" They were delicious, not too spicy or greasy, with plenty of beef filling, just the right meal for a brisk December day. People gathering to make tamales and others lining up to buy them is a sure sign it's Christmas in this part of the world.

Tamaladas, or tamale-making gatherings, are an ancient New World tradition that long pre-dates the Spanish conquest. The process is labor-intensive and best done with a large group, the perfect occasion for a family party. Perhaps the native peoples of Mexico added their tamale-making ritual to a religious pageant brought to Mexico by Spanish missionaries in the early 1600s. In Mexico, the Christmas season begins on December 16 with las posadas, a series of nine nightly processions that recreate Mary and Joseph's pilgrimage to Bethlehem and their search for shelter for themselves and the baby Jesus. The pilgrims stop at homes requesting lodging and after the rituals are performed, they are welcomed with food and drink, music and the breaking of a piñata. The traditional foods are tamales, pan dulces (sweet breads), ponche de posada (holiday punch), and hot chocolate.

I was busy checking with local Mexican restaurants and community organizations about their holiday plans and encountered evidence that the historic observances of tamaladas and las posadas are alive and well in the Austin community. Hundreds of families and local groups as diverse as ALLGO-Informe Sida, Outreach in the Barrio, and the Travis Heights Elementary PTA are gathering to make tamales to enjoy during the Christmas season or sell to raise funds for their organizations. More than 200 parents pitched in to make tamales at the third annual Travis Heights tamalada and another 200 showed up to visit and buy tamales. For the first time this year, the cultural arts organization La Peña celebrated La Posada with a candlelight procession from the Fairway Village Apartments to the Montopolis Recreation Center. The children from the apartment community participated in the procession, representing Mary, Joseph, and the angels, singing with celebrity guest Tish Hinojosa. Theirs was only a one-night observance, but La Peña's Tomas Salas also suggested I interview Montopolis resident Gustavo Guerrero about the annual posadas for which his family is very well known.


Cynthia and Lydia Perez are the owners of a very popular downtown eatery -- Las Manitas -- and active supporters of local Latino cultural and arts organizations. When I called to verify the dates their restaurant would be taking tamale orders, they tipped me off that the Travis Heights Elementary PTA hosts an annual tamalada. PTA mom/attorney Cynthia Biggers, PTA past president Ray Lopez, and Travis Heights assistant principal Carola Garcia-Lemke proudly shared the story of their successful event. One of Austin's older elementary schools, Travis Heights is located at 2010 Alameda in South Austin and has 725 students with diverse ethnic backgrounds. "A few years ago a Travis Heights teacher named Carlos Gonzalez told me they were having trouble getting Hispanic parents to school activities and suggested that maybe the PTA could come up with some ideas to involve them," recalls Ray Lopez. "It occurred to me that a tamalada would appeal to them because it would give them a chance to show everyone what they do with their families at Christmas." He was so right.

The first tamalada was held three years ago and drew a crowd of about 30 parents. The next year, 130 parents showed up. On December 7 of this year, the tamalada was combined with two other long-standing PTA fundraisers, a bake sale and a poinsettia sale in an event called Winterfest which attracted a much bigger crowd.

Making tamales at Travis Heights Elementary's Winterfest
photograph by John Anderson
Two hundred parents gathered in the small, cramped Travis Heights cafeteria early in the morning. English-only speakers, bilingual parents and Spanish-only speakers sat and spread masa on corn shucks together, filled, and rolled the finished tamales. Working together provided them the opportunity to get better acquainted and develop an awareness of each other's cultures in a relaxed and festive atmosphere. Neighborhood restaurants Las Manitas, Güero's and La Reyna donated food to feed the hungry workers. Most of the tamales they made were purchased by the parents who made them and other parents who came to buy baked goods, crafts and poinsettias. Biggers, Lopez, and Garcia-Lemke all agree that putting on the tamalada every year is a tremendous amount of work, but well worth the effort. The schoolchildren proudly witness their parents sharing their cultures and working together to benefit the school. Now the tamalada is a permanent part of the fabric of life at Travis Heights Elementary, helping to strengthen a sense of family and togetherness, much the same way making tamales every year unites Hispanic families at home.

Las Posadas

Montopolis residents Manuela and Isidro Guerrero and their large family of grown children came to Austin from their native Monterrey, Mexico in 1970. They brought with them a strong Catholic faith and a pride in a cultural heritage which they actively share with their children. "They haven't let us forget where we came from or what our traditions are," says son Gustavo Guerrero. For more than 20 years the Guerrero family has celebrated las posadas during the Christmas season, a religious and cultural activity that unites their large family and shares their faith and cultural pride with neighbors.

The word posada means "inn" or lodging. Beginning on December 16, there are nine evening processions reenacting Mary and Joseph's search for lodging in Bethlehem. Pilgrims singing and carrying candles approach a home, a church, or a place of business three times. The "innkeepers" turn the pilgrims away two times and then welcome them in at the third request. Once the "pilgrims" are welcomed inside, celebrations vary. In churches and some private homes, the ceremonies are religious in nature, with hymns and rosaries. "Some of the families who request a posada want prayers, a rosary before they serve refreshments," says Guerrero. In other locations, the arrival of the pilgrims is cause for lively festivities, almost always including the breaking of a piñata. Tamales, pastries, hot chocolate, and hot fruit punch are the traditional fare for posada parties and there is often music and dancing as well.

The third Guerrero posada this year was at the Riverside Library branch, 2410-C E. Riverside last Wednesday. More than 150 people gathered for the party, the 10th annual posada at the library. It included many piñatas, Christmas carols, a musical puppet show and refreshments such as tamales, buñuelos with piloncillo syrup and ponche. The same night, a group of children from the Fairway Village Apartments marched from their home to La Peña's posada at Montopolis Recreation Center, singing songs led by Tish Hinojosa. Once they were welcomed into the Center, they celebrated with more music, dances, a theatrical performance, more piñatas, and delicious refreshments.

The Guerrero family posadas are well-known in the Montopolis neighborhood and their fame is spreading. According to Gustavo, his mother begins to get calls about the posadas in the late summer or early fall. They make a point of going to the library every year and there are some families who are regulars, but Gustavo says his mother likes to give first choice to people who have never had a posada come to their house before. Tonight, Thursday, December 19, the family will lead another public posada, this time to El Mexicano Restaurant on South First Street. The nightly pilgrimages will continue until Christmas Eve, inviting many families to experience the true spirit of the holidays.

Holiday Recipes

This punch is a standard Christmas offering in Mexican homes where visitors are greeted with a luscious aroma as it steams on the stovetop. It calls for several varieties of tropical fruits and fruit nectars which are more readily available in Austin these days than ever before. Once rare exotic items such as sugar cane, lemon grass, tamarind pods, guayaba (guava), and membrillo (quince) can now be purchased at Fiesta, Central Market or la Pulga -- the flea market on Hwy290. Local cookbook author Lucinda Hutson kindly shares this recipe from her book ¡Tequila! Cooking With the Spirit of Mexico (TenSpeed, $16.95, paper). She allows for several substitutions and suggests that canned tropical fruit nectars create a wonderful flavor in the absence of fresh fruit. Though Hutson now makes this ponche with tequila, she recalls that residents around Juarez and her native El Paso are more likely to make it with rum. Weary Christmas pilgrims will enjoy it with or without either of the spirits.

Ponche de Posada

1 sugar cane stalk, approx. 4 ft. long, cut in segments

3 quarts water

6 stalks lemongrass, rough outer leaves removed, cut into 3" pieces and slightly mashed (optional)

1 pound tejocote, a small, round yellow fruit popular in Mexico for punches (crab apples

or assorted dried fruits can be substituted)

1 cup golden raisins

1 pound piloncillo or dark brown sugar

1 membrillo (quince), about 3/4 pound or 2 crisp Asian pears, cut into wedges

1 pound guayaba (guava), quartered, or assorted mixed dried fruits

5 tamarind pods, peeled

1 cup jamaica (dried hibiscus flowers)

3 Granny Smith apples, sliced

6 sticks cinnamon, about 3" long

1 tsp whole allspice

1/4 tsp whole cloves

1 lemon, sliced

2 quarts fruit nectar (such as guava, guanabana or apricot)

2 oranges, sliced

1 liter (or more) of your favorite tequila or rum

With a sharp, sturdy knife, trim away the tough peel of the sugar cane segments; cut each segment into lengthwise quarters. Place the water in a large, heavy non-reactive stockpot along with the lemongrass, tejocote, dried fruits, raisins and half the piloncillo. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the membrillo (or pears), guava, tamarindos, jamaica, apples and spices along with the fruit nectar, sweetening with the remaining piloncillo to taste. Simmer for about an hour or until slightly thickened and aromatic. Add the sliced citrus fruit during the last 15 minutes. Ladle piping hot into mugs and allow guests to add the spirits to taste. Serves 20.

There are as many varieties of tamales as there are cooks who make them. Chef Miguel Ravago's delicate home-style recipe uses butter and sour cream rather than the more traditional lard in the masa. The mildly spicy poblano pepper filling is simple to make and very satisfying. The well-known founding chef of Fonda San Miguel restaurant shared this recipe with his good friend, Mexican cooking teacher and author Maria Dolores Torres Yzabal for her lovely book The Mexican Gourmet (ThunderBay Press, $39.95, hard). Banana leaves are somewhat scarce in Austin but corn shucks for tamales can be purchased at Fiesta and are a holiday staple in all HEB stores. This recipe can easily be doubled.

Tamales de Chile Verde


6 poblano or long green chilies, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped

2 tomatoes, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped

1 white onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

a pinch of salt

Tamal Dough

11/4 cups butter, softened

1/2 cup sour cream

2 pounds masa harina

11/2 cups warm chicken or vegetable stock

1 Tbs salt, or to taste

14 trimmed banana leaves or dried corn shucks, soaked in hot water

extra banana leaves or corn shucks for lining the steamer

To make the filling, combine the peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and salt. Set aside. Whip the butter in a large mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Add the sour cream and beat to blend completely. Slowly beat in the masa. After all the masa is incorporated, lower the mixer speed to slow and add the stock and salt. Mix until well-blended. Let the dough stand for five minutes. Divide the masa among the 14 banana leaves or corn shucks, spreading it about 1/8 of an inch thick in the center of each. Spread 1 Tbs of filling in each, roll up leaves or shucks lengthwise, then fold over the tops and bottoms to create little packages. Line a steamer basket with the remaining banana leaves or corn shucks and place the tamales upright, packed tightly together. Cover with more leaves. Place the steamer basket over briskly boiling water, cover tightly, and cook for 45 to 55 minutes, or until the masa separates easily from the leaf when opened.

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