When It Was Just Us: My Family’s Holiday Journey

(Photo by Rjcastillo)

(Photo by Rjcastillo)

Another Christmas is upon us and we are set to gather together to connect and bond with those we love most in this special time of the year.

When I was growing up in Chicago, our holiday gatherings were small and intimate. It was only my parents, my three older sisters, my younger brother and me. My folks were the only ones in their families that had left Mexico for the United States, so there weren’t any aunts, uncles, or cousins in our lives per say: it was just us.

On Christmas Eve, we’d attend Midnight Mass at our neighborhood church. My father, my brother and I would wear suits and ties. My mother and sisters would wear nice dresses and heals, yes even if there was snow and ice on the ground. The church was always crowded but warm.

After the service, we’d come home for the main event: to open our gifts. We’d camp out in the living room and wait for my father to give us the okay. With a slight nod of his head we’d then all jump under the Christmas tree. We’d grab the presents and start reading off names‚for Mami, for Papi, for Ninfa, for Liz, for Pat, for Alex, for César! After the gifts piled up, the beautiful bows and colorful paper didn’t have a chance. Before you knew it, the floor was covered with old wrapping paper. The look on our parents’ faces when they’d see our excitement over the wonderful gifts they’d given us was priceless. It was the happiest day of the year for us Then at around 3am, we’d all go to bed.

The main event of Christmas Day was our holiday dinner.

My mother would start to prep an entire week before. She would shop at the local Mexican grocery store for all of the necessary ingredients—masa, corn husks, pork, etc. Then a couple of days before Christmas, she’d start to make the tamales. It was quite an ordeal. Our small kitchen would be turned into the command center of what looked to be a full-blown professional catering enterprise.

My mother and a close comadre would cook together all day, speaking Spanish, laughing and just catching up. After many hours cooking, the tamales were ready. Mama spiced the masa with salt, pepper and garlic powder, and the pork was slowly cooked and seasoned perfectly. She would slather the masa onto the corn husk, grab a healthy amount of the shredded pork and place it on top of the masa. She’d fold up the cornhusk making them into tight compact vessels and place them in this huge steel drum, steaming them for hours.

My mother’s tamales were smaller than most: the masa was soft and light, and the pork was tender and succulent. I have never tasted tamales like that again. Mami made every single tamale with great care. It was important for her to make Christmas special for us and to celebrate it the traditional Mexican way. Year after year, she did just that.

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The table would be set with all of the fixings: tamales, pinto beans and Spanish rice. Later we added this wonderful potato salad that my eldest sister learned how to make from an American friend of hers. My father and mother would each sit at one end of the table and my sisters, me and my brother filled in the middle. We weren’t a boisterous group, so there wasn’t much conversation going on, but we were a tight knit family nonetheless and truly enjoyed each other’s company.

In my senior year of high school, my parents divorced and my father was no longer part of our holiday table. Those first couple of years not having him at the head of the mesa was awkward. We never really spoke of the divorce or expressed how we felt about it. We just moved on. Our mother was still there and that is what mattered most to us. Since I was the oldest boy, I started to sit at the head of the table, until my three older sisters protested. They weren’t about to let Old World ways take hold in our family. We started taking turns sitting at the helm.

As the years passed, there were new family members at our table. Two of my older sisters married and had children. We now had a cute niece and nephew, and two brothers-in-laws at our holiday gatherings. We stayed this way for many years After college, I went off to graduate school in Florida, never to live in my hometown again, but I still made sure to get back to Chicago for the holidays.

In 1998, my mother passed away at the too young age of 61. This was a devastating blow to us. She was the center of our family life and that very first Christmas without her was the saddest one ever. We missed her dearly and it was just never the same again.

As time has gone on, my family has continued to change. My brother César is now married with two children of his own and my sister had another daughter. I now have a wife too.

Both my wife’s and my family are spread out across the country and around the globe. My mother-in-law lives in Westchester just outside of NYC. My brother and two sisters and their families live in Chicago, and another sister lives with her son in South Florida. My wife’s brother lives in South Africa and his son lives in Nairobi, Kenya. We’ve become an international familia and have adopted new Christmas traditions along the way.

My brother’s wife is Italian, so they celebrate Christmas with the traditional Southern Italian cuisine of seafood and pasta. One of my sisters married into a Cuban family they celebrate with lechón (roasted pork), black beans and white rice. My wife is from Nigeria. Our Christmas dinners are made up of jollof rice, moin-moin (a savory black eyed pea steamed cake), plantains and efo (West African greens). But my two sisters in Chicago still celebrate the traditional Mexican way with tamales, pinto beans, Spanish rice and potato salad.

My father would always say that this country is made up of different cultures, and if we admired another group’s traditions then we should take them on as our own. It amazes me how our family now includes such a diverse and wonderful group of people. Our holiday table has expanded throughout the years, like a tree with several branches that stretches across many lands. My mother would be so happy and proud to see how our family has grown and prospered.

As the years go by, our lives change, and different people become part of our ever-evolving holiday circle. Sadly along the way, some close family members are no longer part of those yearly holiday gatherings: grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles who have passed away. It’s part of life’s cycle. They may no longer be with us physically, yet they are never far from our thoughts.

My sisters, my brother, and I rarely celebrate Christmas all together any longer. Distance and individual obligations make it challenging. Although we are now apart during this special time of year, each of us still remembers fondly those early holidays in our family’s history: when it was just us.

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Alejandro Díaz tweets from @adiaz3525.

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