Tamal: Tico Christmas Tradition
Never have experienced the Holiday season in Costa Rica (or any other country) I didn’t know what to expect. There are no snow-covered rooftops, no fields of pine trees, no bells jingling all the way. However, there are tamales. I have not witnessed a tradition here that is more carefully observed than the Holiday season tamal. Unlike Mexico and the Unite States, the Costa Rican spelling is Spanish (literally from Spain) without the last letter ‘e.’ Nearly every family in Costa Rica will partake in this tradition. So many that the University of Costa Rica concluded in a study that “196 million pairs of tamales [are] eaten during December [which equals] three tamales per Tico per day.” (www.ticotimes.net) That is truly a mountain of tamales.
Dating back almost 500 years ago, the tamal tradition has been more Costa Rican than the phrase, “pura vida.” Recipes vary from home to home, but this is incredibly family oriented. “Grandmothers and mothers will teach granddaughters and daughters how to make tamales; making sure the tradition is kept alive.” (qcostarica.com) Although it may not have always been part of Christmas, it has been part of tradition since before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Costa Rica. “The corn filling symbolized the sun god for indigenous people 500 years ago, but when Spanish conquistadors colonized the isthmus, the food became part of festivities celebrating the immaculate conception and Christmas.” (www.ticotimes.net)
No historian can pinpoint the exact origin of tamales, but we do know that they have been around for millennia. “Tamales originated in Mesoamerica as early as 8000 to 5000 BC. As making tamales is a simple method of cooking corn, it may have been brought from Mexico to Central and South America.” (en.wikipedia.org) For our intents and purposes though, the tamal tradition in Costa Rica can be considered beginning with life itself. “The truth is, all Costa Ricans will remember having eaten them since they were small children.” (qcostarica.com) Therefore, they have been around as long as anyone can remember.
Although tamales are made year-round, the tradition is based around the Holiday season, especially the month of December. It doesn’t matter when you decide to eat them, you will see people enjoying tamales for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. However, “they are absolutely fundamental for coffee break time” (qcostarica.com) known very properly as tamaleada, “the tradition of taking a break from buying gifts to invite friends over to the house in the afternoon to share a tamal, a cup of coffee and some good conversation.” (www.ticotimes.net)
Whether you are an outsider like me, a visiting tourist, or a local the tamal tradition in Costa Rica is all-encompassing. You will see the supermarkets fill entire isles with the ingredients to make them. Anyone here will tell you about their experiences making tamales with their families every year for as long as they can remember. It doesn’t matter if you are staying in the city, or on a remote beach front, if you happen to be in Costa Rica in December, you will experience the beauty and magic of the tamal. And on that note, I think I smell tamales coming from my Tico mom’s kitchen. Time to eat!
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