Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad

Family, Food, and Tradition in Mexico and South America
A child costumed in traditional Cuencano garb rides atop an elaborately decorated horse in el Pase del Nino Viajero, a massive daylong Christmas Eve pageant in Cuenca, Ecuador. Flickmor Photo

In Tuxpan, a village in Michoacan, Mexico, where Beatriz Rivas grew up and where her three grown sons were born, the streets are alive with songs and merriment in the nine days leading up to Christmas, as the whole town joins in a tradition known as Las Posadas (Spanish for “inns”), parading from house to house or street to street in a lively re-enactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging.

When the procession arrives at the chosen destination, revelers carrying statues or dressing the part of Joseph and Mary sing a song imploring the “innkeeper” to let them stay. The hosts sing out a response, insisting no at first, then eventually welcoming the entire group for a celebration with simple food, warming drinks, sweets, piñatas for the children, and great fun for all.

“In Mexico, we do it in the streets,” recalled Ms. Rivas’s son Carlos Mendoza, with different streets taking turns as hosts each night.

In Cuenca, Ecuador, Patricia Moyano said, Christmas Eve is marked by a massive daylong pageant known as el Pase del Nino Viajero, with elaborately decorated floats and celebrants dressed as Joseph, Mary, the three kings, shepherds. Some wear traditional cholo Cuencano outfits; others are in extravagant handmade costumes. It, too, is a retelling of Joseph and Mary’s journey, writ very, very large, and with considerable influence from Ecuador’s indigenous traditions. According to the website todayinecuador.com, there may be 50,000 participants and 200,000 or more spectators.

“In the evening, everyone reunites, and we have Christmas dinner,” said Ms. Moyano, who lives in East Hampton now. The meal always starts with tamales, followed by roast pork, suckling pig, or turkey, with sides of rice, mote (hominy), potatoes, salad, and aji, an Ecuadorian hot sauce with many variations. The family gathers for a meal, which can continue until midnight or later, and at midnight there are gifts for the children. There is champagne and later canelazo, a warm, spiced cinnamon drink often spiked with aguardiente. Buñuelos with honey and cheese are the dessert.

Some Christmas traditions can be recreated in a new place. Ms. Rivas’s family takes part in a Posadas celebration here on the South Fork, with family and friends traveling to a different house each night from Dec. 16 to 24. The Spanish-speaking pastor of Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Bridgehampton “comes to do a little Mass for each house,” her son explained. Ms. Rivas will host the Posada at her house in East Hampton on Dec. 22 and will serve up tamales, tacos, beans, and rice to a crowd of 20 or 25. It won’t be quite the same as in Mexico, she said, but the songs will be and so will the food. And for her family at Christmas, she’ll make her buñuelos and sweet tamales canarios.

 “It takes a really long time, and you have to be really precise,” Mr. Mendoza said of preparing these tamales. “My mom doesn’t really make a lot of tamales” — and only at Christmas.

During the holidays, more than any other time of year, cooking the food remembered from childhood, wherever that childhood was spent, helps recollect family, old friends, and customs we hold dear. The taste of a buñuelos, lightly dusted with sugar, the smell of ponche, a warm cinnamony Christmastime punch cooking on the stove, a house filled with the aroma of a roasting turkey or ham, sides just the way mother or grandmother or great-grandmother made them — these are the things that conjure holiday memories and keep us connected to those with whom we shared them.

When Luchi Masliah of Springs remembers Christmas in Uruguay, she thinks of roast suckling pig. Almost every house, from the most modest to the very fancy, has a built-in outdoor barbecue, a parilla, she said. That “concept is so imbedded into the way we eat. There’s nothing you won’t put on a parilla,” said Ms. Mesliah, who owns Gula Gula Empanadas. In December, it’s summer in Uruguay, and it might be in the 80s — the perfect time for outdoor cooking. But in the city, where a parilla may not be practical, people will take their ready-to-roast pig to a neighborhood bakery, then pick up the perfectly cooked result in time for Christmas Eve dinner.

In Montevideo on Christmas Eve, it seems everyone you pass on the street is carrying a roast pig to or from the bakery, Ms. Masliah said. “That image of people walking down the street with a huge baking pan with a roasted pig on it, I’ll never forget that.” Usually it will have been marinated overnight, then slathered with thick adobo sauce — fresh parsley, oregano, thyme, garlic, red pepper flakes, oil, and lemon juice or vinegar.

There’s a million recipes,” she said. Along with this will be a salad of lettuce, tomato, onion, and cucumber, and another of potatoes, carrots, peas, all steamed and dressed with a lemony mayonnaise. “If you’re making a salad, you would make your homemade mayonnaise.”

In Peru, too, Christmas dinner comes on Christmas Eve, and it’s a late one. “We gather all together starting approximately at 10 p.m.,” recalled Diana Argote of Hampton Bays. “I remember going to my aunt’s house, and we were a total of 40 to 45 people. The main focus is the Nativity.” Everybody spent the night helping to cook or set the table, “and the rest is dancing and detangling the fireworks for midnight.” At midnight, the host takes the baby Jesus from the Nativity “and passes it around so everybody can kiss him. As if it is background music, we can hear the firecrackers and the people screaming outside on the street, ‘Feliz Navidad! Feliz Navidad!’ ”

Her family would go out to the street to wish neighbors a merry Christmas, and finally sit down for dinner at 12:30 or 1 a.m. Turkey, ensalada rusa (boiled potatoes with vegetables and mayonnaise), homemade applesauce with pineapple and carmelized prunes, and tamales. Later hot chocolate and pannetone. “When we finish eating, we’ll go and open the presents that every member of the family brought before and put under the tree. We really mainly give presents to the kids and some of our oldest family members, as a sign of honor to them, but because our tradition focuses on baby Jesus being born, our kids represent that.”

Growing up in Brazil, said Adriana Cunho Rutherford of Sagaponack, the biggest holiday celebrations also came on Christmas Eve, a common thread in all the Latin American countries, as varied as their traditions might be. It was then the family would gather together for a big, late dinner not unlike a Thanksgiving meal with turkey, pork shoulder or tenderloin, sweet sides, farofa, which is similar to couscous, and a salad. Gifts are exchanged at midnight, often accompanied by a game among adults called Secret Friend. It is similar to Secret Santa, “but in Brazil, we changed it a little bit to be more fun.” In this version, if a person doesn’t like his or her gift, it can be exchanged for someone else’s, and on and on, until one lucky person gets the final choice.

Many Brazilians on the South Fork will gather to celebrate Christmas with the Brazilian ministry of the Community Bible Church in Noyac, which holds services every Saturday at 7:30 p.m. “We laugh a lot,” Ms. Rutherford said of the post-service celebrations. “And then we have Christmas dinner” and a toast at midnight. “I hope I can continue celebrating Christmas from our culture’s style and be able to pass this tradition to my daughter, so she can have good memories, understand why we celebrate Christmas, and not only think that is time for a Christmas gift.”

Uruguay is very secular, much more so than its neighbors in South America, Ms. Masliah said, and its population is almost entirely of European descent. Both her parents were first generation Uruguayan. Her father’s family, who came from Turkey, was Jewish; her mother’s was Catholic from the Ukraine and Lithuania. “In my family, the holidays didn’t really have anything to do with the holidays, they had to do with family. . . . They were really more about everybody getting together and having a good time.” Now married to an American from Texas with a teenage daughter, she said, “We carry on that same idea. It’s about the people, getting together, and family.”

 

Click for Recipes

Christmastime means sweet tamales canarios and buñuelos at Beatriz Rivas’s house in East Hampton, and it’s the only time of year she’ll make those treats. Carissa Katz
In Mexico, song, merriment, and the light of sparklers fill the streets in the nine days before Christmas Eve as revelers travel from house to house in a lively re-enactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging. Eneas Photo
Fruits, vegetables, sweets, and libations figure prominently in many of the Pase del Nino floats and costumes in Cuenca, Ecuador. Natacha Cornaz Photo
Suckling pig is carried through the streets cooked and ready for the Christmas Eve feast. Flickmor Photo
Patricia Moyano’s family photos from Christmases in Ecuador are reminders of how the holiday is celebrated there.