by Jim Mulligan
I would imagine that not many family traditions can be traced back ten thousand years. The Gates family, like many families who trace their roots to Mexico, can do just that. Lesley Olvera Gates, her husband Tony, their two daughters Maddy and Morgan, and their extended family, continue a tradition of Christmas Eve tamale making and eating that Lesley remembers as an integral part of her earliest childhood memories—and it literally has ancient beginnings.
It is thought that tamales were first made by Mesoamericans in what is now Mexico and Central America in about 8000 BCE. Prior to the Spanish arrival in the Americas, tamales had long been associated with the religious traditions of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. As Christianity was introduced, tamales naturally made the transition to the feast foods of Christmas and Easter. Just to be sure we all know what we’re talking about, a tamale is a dough made of ground corn, most often filled with meat and spices, wrapped in leaves (usually corn husks, but sometimes banana or other leaves), and steamed. This wrapping in leaves is where we get the contemporary Mexican-Spanish word tamal (in English we add the “e” to the singular and pronounce it). Tamal comes from the word tamalli, the Náhuatl (a language of the indigenous peoples of Mexico) word meaning “wrapped.”
For Lesley Gates and her family’s tradition, we can fast-forward from 8000 BCE to the 1920s, when her paternal grandparents immigrated from Mexico to the Reedley area. Grandma Margaret came here with her family when she was a young girl. Grandpa Nick arrived at about the same time from his birthplace in Léon, Guanajuato, Mexico. Grandma and Grandpa Olvera eventually settled in Reedley and raised six children, one girl and five boys. One of those boys, Joe Olvera, is Lesley Gates’s father. Joe married his high school sweetheart, Lesley’s mom, Laurie, who is now affectionately known as Granny O.
The Olvera family tradition of Christmas Eve tamales, the same tradition that the Gateses are carrying on, is not terribly unique. In fact, it reads like the tradition of many families of Mexican descent for generations before them and many families today. Granny O explained what she saw when she was invited into the fold and watched as the matriarch of the family, Grandma Margaret, orchestrated the events of Christmas Eve. “The whole family would gather to make tamales, and finally got them in the pots to steam. Then the family would attend midnight mass, except Grandma Margaret, who stayed behind to attend the pots. After mass, the family would open gifts and eat tamales until two o’clock in the morning.”
Lesley has fond memories herself of attending those family gatherings in later years with Grandma Margaret at the helm, “It was the one time of the year that the Olvera family, my dad’s side of the family, all got together.” Grandma Margaret passed away when Lesley was about 12 years old. With her passing, the tradition of tamale making also stopped for a few years. It was Granny O who finally insisted that the Christmas Eve tamale making and eating tradition needed to be resurrected. So, with no written recipes or instructions—Grandma Margaret didn’t write anything down—and only the memories of the annual event, Joe and Laurie Olvera began to gather the family once again. For many years they continued the tradition that the Olveras brought with them from Mexico.
For about the last thirteen years, the Gates have hosted their extended family to carry on the Olvera tamale making on Christmas Eve. As we sat at her kitchen table and discussed how the tradition has continued, Lesley showed me a stack of masa-stained notebook papers and recipes printed from the internet. She explained, “Nobody ever wrote down recipes or instructions for the family tamales. For some time, we’ve been taking notes each year, noticing any changes we need to make for the next year. We think we are pretty close to those tamales I remember as a kid, but of course they will never be like Grandma Margaret’s tamales.”
When the extended family gathers each year, they make as many as twenty dozen packages of masa and meat goodness. “We set up an assembly line and everyone has their job,” Lesley explains, “and Granny O is definitely our quality control manager. When new members join the crew, they don’t always know how to spread the masa on the ojas (corn husks). Some are too thick, some too thin. Some don’t know how to leave the right amount of space on the edge to get a good wrap. We put them on the front end of the line so we can smooth out their mistakes before the meat gets added.” The family has also learned a lot of lessons about the whole operation over the years. For example, Lesley says, “We don’t even try to use the ojas that are wavy!” If you’ve ever made tamales, you know what she means.
After making, cooking and enjoying fresh tamales on Christmas Eve, the rest of the tamales are divvied up among the family. Everyone gets to take home a few bags to put in the freezer to enjoy later. For the Gates family, Lesley explains they have more tamales the next morning, “It’s tradition for the four of us to eat tamales for brunch on Christmas morning.” Daughter Morgan says she really enjoys the tamale tradition, but did joke a little about how long they have tamales to eat, “By about Easter time I’m ready to wait until next Christmas for more tamales.”
This story is not actually about tamales. It became obvious as Lesley talked about her lifetime of family Christmas Eve gatherings, tamales are merely the conduit for family interaction. Of course, the tamales have nourished and will continue to sustain the individuals who gather, but it is the gathering, the memories of laughter and the good-natured ribbing as everyone tries to spread the masa just right, that elicits emotion as Lesley talks about her family. “It’s really just a great opportunity for the whole family to sit around the table, enjoy one another’s company, and have some fun.”
Whether your family holiday traditions include tamales or Christmas Parades, ham dinners or a trip to Christmas tree lane, remember, whatever tradition brings the family together, having your family together is the best tradition of all.
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