I was in college the first time I realized that families might not eat the same thing as mine for Christmas dinner. As we sat at dinner, a couple of girls talked excitedly about eating turkey and stuffing for their upcoming holiday meal. I was confused—turkey is for Thanksgiving, not Christmas.
“What do you eat for Christmas then?” one of the women asked.
“Tamales and beans and red chile and tortillas,” I answered.
They were all floored. “Who eats Mexican food for Christmas?” one girl said.
“Well, it’s actually New Mexican food,” I said. “But that’s what we always eat on Christmas Eve.”
Despite living in Colorado since before my first birthday, I’ve never spent a Christmas anywhere other than the Land of Enchantment. Almost all of my extended family live in New Mexico, and our roots run deep there. While our traditions have evolved through the years, a few things have remained the same, particularly the food. There are three main staples that make a New Mexico Christmas—at least in our family: red chile, tamales and biscochitos. After Christmas Eve Mass, we pile our plates high with tamales and tortillas and fill our bowls with pozole, red chile and pinto beans. Biscochitos make a sweet dessert, similar to Christmas sugar cookies.
For the uninitiated, New Mexico has its own cuisine, and while it shares roots to Mexican food, it’s also influenced heavily by the Native American culture of the state. Red chile is no Midwestern chili, and it’s not the plain red sauce you can request on your burrito at many Mexican restaurants. New Mexican red chile is almost like a soup, made with pork and dehydrated red chiles. Tamales are filled with a thicker version of red chile, and they are difficult to make. Some years my mother gathers friends for a tamale-making party, easing the effort with laughter, gossip and the camaraderie of tradition. In busy years, we purchase a few dozen tamales in Albuquerque. But we always make the red chile ourselves since Grandma obviously makes the best red chile in the world—as all New Mexican grandmothers do.
While I never turn down a fresh tortilla and bowl of red chile, my favorite part of our Christmas has always been biscochitos. The biscuit-like anise cookie rolled in cinnamon sugar is the official cookie of New Mexico, and it was introduced to the region by 16th-century Spaniards.
I hold fond memories of waking up at dawn at my grandparents’ home to spend the morning with other area kids for Mis Crismes, a tradition in rural New Mexico similar to Christmas caroling. We would bundle up, hop on the tractor, and ride from house to house to go inside and sing carols. At each house we were rewarded with hot cocoa and cookies. Nothing is better than a homemade bisco and a warm drink.
Ours are not the traditions commonly seen on television. You probably won’t see a family in a Hallmark Christmas movie sitting around the kitchen eating tortillas and pozole, and I’ve never seen a plate of biscochitos for Santa Clause in storybooks or TV shows. But to me nothing tastes more like the holidays at home than tamales and beans.
Start to finish: 90 minutes
Servings: 5 dozen small cookies
1 pound leaf lard
1 ½ cups sugar
2 ½ teaspoons anise seed
2 eggs, beaten
6 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup brandy
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
• Heat oven to 350 F.
• Cream lard, sugar and anise seed in a large mixing bowl. Add eggs and beat well.
• Combine flour, baking powder and salt in large bowl.
• Alternately add flour and brandy to creamed mixture until a stiff dough has been formed.
• Knead dough slightly and pat or roll to one-quarter-inch thickness. Cut dough in desired shapes or use cookie press.
• Combine sugar and cinnamon in a small mixing bowl. Dust top of each cookie with a small amount of cinnamon sugar.
• Bake for 10 minutes, or until cookies are lightly browned.
Ready to Take on Tamales?
Here’s our recipe for Red Chile Pork Tamales.