Posts Tagged ‘Christmas traditions’

Tree  2012-12-01 14.47.11 auto

Yule Tree, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2012
by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

No snow buried the ground the day we cut the Winter Yule. Huffing and puffing, we took turns severing trunk from tangled roots. Last summer we had a landscaper install a French drain that streams into the concave hollow of a rain garden we will plant next spring. The energy company marked the lines before digging; that’s when we discovered the blue spruce growing over our gas line. It would have to be removed.

In mid-December, I said to Liz, “Let’s make the spruce our Yule tree.” The handsaw wasn’t far behind. The tree is almost 4 1/2  feet tall with a wide berth that tapers to a slight curve at the top. She grew from a seedling, probably dropped by a songbird that made a pit stop on the mature spruce nearby. Trunk rings indicate that it took six years for this tree to grow 52 inches with a one and 1/2 inch base. Trees are slow and deliberate. They are the slow walkers of the forest.

Rings - 2012-12-01 14.58.06 autoGrowth Rings, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2012 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Tree lovers like Liz and I will travel great distances to see hardwoods, softwoods, evergreens, and conifers in their prime. We have visited the oldest red and white pines in Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota, birthplace of the Mississippi River. We have sweated under live oaks near Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home in Savannah, photographed an old gingko at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, and attended a community gathering celebrating the life and death of a 333-year-old Burr Oak near the Franklin Avenue bridge in Minneapolis. On a trip to New Mexico, I stood under the Lawrence tree painted by Georgia O’Keeffe at Kiowa Ranch. In Georgia, my mother and I talked family history under a ginkgo by the Old Government House that was planted in 1791 in commemoration of a visit by George Washington.

Saw 2012-12-01 14.48.26 auto

Saw, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2012 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Trees are important to the spiritual aspect of our lives. I can’t imagine a world without trees. Today we celebrate the longest night of the year, Winter Solstice. Tuesday we will celebrate Christmas. The blue spruce in our living room leaves an empty space in the garden. Though wistful when she fell, I am joyful that she gleams from our living room window at the darkest time of year. And that her summer-dried bark will be kindling for next winter‘s Solstice fire.

Home grown tree

Home Grown Tree, Droid Shots, Minneapolis,
Minnesota,photo © 2012 by Liz Schultz.
All rights reserved.

-posted on red Ravine, Winter Solstice, December 21st, 2012

Read Full Post »

New pages, testing out my new doodle journal, Christmas gift to myself, December 26, 2009, images © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

Today is all mine. It’s almost two and still I’m dressed in my light blue, light flannel pajamas. They’re old-fashioned, the kind of button-down-top and pants that Ricky Ricardo and Lucy used to wear. As Jim said, “Now if someone comes over early on a weekend, you won’t have to scramble to get dressed.”

No scramblin’ today.

my three cranes

This was the view from my kitchen window yesterday morning. The three cranes who’ve been hanging out here for over a month had meandered up to the spot where the pasture meets the patio—the closest point to the house without actually being on the patio.

One crane stands sentinel while the other two eat or preen. If they catch us in the window watching them, they sometimes stop what they’re doing and stare back. Us watching cranes watching us watching them.

It’s reminiscent of that spring when we had nearly two dozen turkeys lounging on the patio furniture, including the farm table that’s pushed up against the exterior wall of the kitchen. Turkeys looking in on us, and now cranes. Birds, Big Birds, are social animals. Either that or curious ones.
When I crept out the sliding glass door over to the low wall that separates patio from pasture, the cranes booked on out. They didn’t take flight, but they wandered away on their incredibly long and skinny legs to a more comfortable gazing distance.

December Cranes, cranes in the pasture retreating when I move closer, December 28, 2009, photos © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.


November Cranes, same cranes, November 28, 2009,
photo © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.


changing tradition

My sister Patty and Mom made Christmas tamales this year. It’s a tradition in our family. Patty suggested that Mom try adding red chile to her masa this time around. Mom had never done that before. Normally the masa is made straight up—corn mixture and water or broth. Not being the most traditional of women, Mom agreed to the change.

Turned out be a good idea. This year’s Christmas tamales were the best ever. I’m not kidding. Chile in the masa made for an interior sort of heat, the kind that comes from deep inside. And tastyyyy?! The kind of taste that you crave days after Christmas has ended and you wonder if anyone has Christmas tamales still tucked away in the freezer.


Tamales for Christmas, Mom’s tamales stacking up for the big holiday,
photo © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.


tart and sweet

One of my favorite gifts for Christmas was a package of Sharpies in Caribbean colors. They remind me of tropical Jelly Bellies or Skittles. The kind of bright colors that people in island cultures use to paint their homes, although you never can tell since the sun fades the colors over time to a sort of Easter egg pastel palette.
I bought myself a new doodle journal, on sale at Anthropologie. I love that store; the buyers there have the best taste for eclectic and gorgeous furniture, bedding, clothing, shoes, kitchenware.

This journal has a full year’s worth of pages, each month a different color. The months aren’t labeled but the dates are—1 through 31, or however many days there are in that particular month. January is salmon, February creme, March red, April green, May yellow, June blue. The paper has little specs in it, like sun spots on skin. The freckles come out when you apply a marker to the surface.

A doodle a day, starting January 1. I can’t wait. In fact, I didn’t wait. For the first two blank pages, I already doodled. Real doodles, not the fancier drawings I tend to call doodles. I’ll still do those, but sometimes my own complexity—my desire to outdo myself—gets the better of me. Back to basics. (With a mango twist, of course!)



retreat, retreats, re-treaty

I recently became a member of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe. I received the 2010 Catalog of Offerings and have decided to take two classes in 2010.

One I want to take with Jim. One of my intentions for 2010 is to share my passions with him. I seem to spend a lot of time in my own world, and while I’ve always appreciated the latitude my husband gives me, I also realize he’s open to exploring new things.

We had a couple’s massage on his birthday, and I’m always surprised by how willing he is to do things I might otherwise assume he wouldn’t want to do.

Don’t make assumptions, one of The Four Agreements®. I reflect on this particular agreement most of all, although all four are principles to live by.

  1. Be impeccable with your word
  2. Don’t take anything personally
  3. Don’t make assumptions
  4. Always do your best

Read The Four Agreements® again. Live them all year long.
This wasn’t meant to be a post about new intentions. Remember, I’m sitting in pajamas, chillin’. I guess the reflecting and looking forward are percolating, even as I cling to lazy days spent in coffee shops or movie theaters or my writing room.

The waning days of 2009. Another year. Another decade.

Read Full Post »

With the preparation being so labor and time intensive, tamales became holiday fare, made for special occasions. This tradition remained for thousands of years, with the women of the family working together to make the sauces and meats, preparing the masa, and finally assembling and wrapping the tamales before steaming them in large pots on the stove. The process takes all day, the preparation often starting one of two days in advance. It is virtually unheard of to make a few tamales. In most cases, when they are made, hundreds are made at a time. Everyone—young, old, family and friends—is invited to tamale feasts where they are enjoyed, savored and loved by all.

~from “The History of Tamales,” Tamara’s Tamales, Los Angeles, CA

Two Sundays ago the girls and I met my sister Bobbi and her daughter at Mom and Dad’s for the making of the tamales. Mom didn’t start making tamales until about 10 or 15 years ago. She began the tradition when my sister Janet began hosting the Christmas Eve family gathering at her home. Mom decided that what she wanted to contribute to the feast was several dozen tamales. Thus, a family tradition was born.

Truth of the matter is, Mom didn’t learn to make tamales from her own mother. My grandma got her tamales from an Indian woman named Benina. Every year Grandpa gave Benina the head from a butchered pig, and Benina in turn gave Grandma and Grandpa some of the tamales she made with the meat.

Mom tried to teach herself how to make tamales. Back when we lived on Neat Lane in Albuquerque’s south valley, Mom and a neighbor, Ruth, who also happened to be my godmother, tried one day to make tamales. “They ended up weighing about a pound each,” Mom recalled. She can’t remember how she finally figured out to make tamales, but she thinks it might have been her cousin Maggie who finally taught her.

Tamales are found all over Latin America but are said to be from Mexico, although back in the days when tamales first appeared, there was no such thing as “Mexico.” Which probably means that tamales were made by various indigenous groups—Aztecs, Mayans, the Incas. Tamales are made of one of the most basic staples in indigenous diets—corn. Several sources on the history of tamales described them this way:

In Pre-Columbian history, being on the move and at war, there was a need for a portable yet sustaining food; hence, the tamale was born. Tamales can be made ahead of time and steamed, grilled, put directly on top of coals to warm, or even eaten cold. There is no record of which pre-Colombian culture invented the tamale, but the evidence suggests that one culture did and the others followed the example.

Tamales caught on fast and there were a variety of dishes, many unknown to modern tastebuds. There were tamales with red, green, yellow, and black chile; tamales with chocolate; fish tamales; frog, tadpole, mushroom, rabbit, gopher, turkey, bee, egg, squash blossom, honey, ox, seed and nut tamales. There were white and red fruit tamales, yellow tamales, dried meat tamales, roasted meat, stewed meat, bean and rice tamales. There was sweet sugar, pineapple, raisin, cinnamon, berry, banana and pumpkin tamales. There were hard and soft cheese tamales, roasted quill tamales, ant, potato, goat, wild boar, lamb and tomato tamales.

The wrapping for these tamales varied almost as much as the ingredients. Cornhusks, banana leaves, fabric, avocado leaves, soft tree bark and other non-toxic leaves were used. The most typical wrappings were cornhusk and banana or avocado leaves.

Today, the most common tamales are red and green chile with chicken, pork, or beef. There are also cheese and vegetable tamales, which probably came about as more and more people have opted to not eat meat.


Making tamales requires plenty of preparation and a lot of determination. Mom makes hers over a period of three days, the last being Assembly. She doesn’t follow recipes, but I’ve done my best to document her methods.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Five pounds of pork loin.
  • About sixty or so chile pods, which you can usually buy in a Mexican fruit market, if your town has one. We often get our chile at a place called “Fruit Basket,” which is a local chain with little stores not much bigger than fruit stands.
  • A package or two of dried cornhusks, which are called hojas in Spanish. Mom gets these at Costco, or at our local tortilla factory. You can probably also get them at a Mexican fruit market.
  • A package of Masa Harina, which is pre-mixed corn mixture, or masa. This you can pick up at a regular grocery store, assuming your city has a pretty big Latino population. You might need to have on hand some baking powder to add to the mixture.
  • For seasoning, per your own tastes, have on hand fresh garlic, a few yellow onions, fresh or dried oregano and cilantro, salt.
  • A few big bowls, a kettle or deep pot, roasting pan, blender for making the chile, a food processor for mixing the masa, and a steamer that holds a lot of tamales.

Day One – The Meat & The Broth

Place about five pounds of pork loin in a large pot or kettle. Add enough water to completely cover the meat. Throw in an onion or two, about four garlic cloves, fresh or dried cilantro and oregano, and boil for about five hours. As the broth boils down, add more water to make sure the meat stays covered.

If the kettle is too big to store in the refrigerator and if you live in a climate that easily dips below freezing most nights in December, you can store the kettle outside in the garage. (That’s what Mom does.) If you don’t live in a cold climate, then make room in the fridge and place the pot in there overnight.

Day Two – Turning The Meat Into Chile Meat

The next day you’ll skim the fat off the broth; this is easy, since overnight as the broth cooled, the fat rose to the top and solidified. Take the pork out of the kettle, shred it into small pieces—it should fall apart after having boiled for so long the day before—and put them into a large bowl. Put the broth back in the garage or the refrigerator; you’ll need it tomorrow for the masa.

Here’s where the recipe gets especially intuitive. Mom makes about two blenderfuls of red chile, but we’re not sure how many pods one blender of chile requires. We’ve estimated you’ll need about 30 chile pods per blender (60 pods total).

Wash the pods in water and dry them a bit. You’ll need to clean each pod by slicing it down the seam, opening it up, and scraping out the seeds. Also discard the stem, which will require cutting it out.

The chile pods are dry and can break apart. That’s fine. Put all the “flesh” parts in the blender. Throw in a couple of cloves of garlic, a small onion (cut in fourths), a couple sprigs each of cilantro and oregano. Add in a bit of water, enough to get the blender going but not so much as to make the chile watery. You want thick chile for tamales. Blend until smooth.

Add the first batch of chile to the meat, and make a second batch. When that’s done, add it to the meat, too. You’re finished for the day.

Day Three – Assembly

Clean the hojas , which will be stiff and unusable. Put them into a roasting pan (you’ll need something long enough to lay the hojas flat), cover with water, and boil. Let the hojas boil for about two hours, until they are soft and workable.

Once the hojas are ready, the next step is to prepare the masa. Follow the directions on the package of Masa Harina, which per Mom’s recollection requires you to add salt, baking powder, and broth (or water). Put the dry masa into a bowl and moisten it with broth. Put the moistened mixture into the food processor and add more broth, a little at a time, mixing with a spatula until the mixture is moist. At some point Mom knows there’s enough broth and turns on the food processor for about 30 or 60 seconds.


Mom says you want the consistency of the masa to be similar to cake mix, but my take is that you want it to be stiffer, like frosting. (The good news is that the package will give you the right measurements, so hopefully it won’t be quite so ambiguous when you do this, although Mom doesn’t follow the package directions and instead relies on her senses to tell her when she’s added enough broth.)

Now assemble the tamales by laying out an open hoja, dropping about two or so tablespoons of masa into the center and smoothing it out like frosting, dropping about one generous tablespoon of chile meat into the center of the masa, rolling the cornhusk lengthwise until it’s closed, and then tying the ends. One person will need to tie the ends (using little strips of cornhusk, which that person can tear off to form a little pile of ties) while another person holds the tamale.

The Sunday of our tamale making adventure, we made about six dozen—not a lot compared to what some families make. We steamed enough to eat right then and there, but the rest got frozen. Tamales must be steamed for at least an hour, and depending on the thickness of the masa, maybe longer. It’s always good, too, to let a steamed tamale sit for about 15 minutes before you open up the cornhusk; that way, the masa can set.

Epilogue – To Tie Or Not To Tie

You may notice when you buy tamales at a market or order them in a restaurant that some come without ties. Many, probably most, people make their tamales by flattening the filling (much more than Mom does—hers are kind of fat and round) and folding up one of the ends of the cornhusk instead of tying both ends. This tends to be a personal preference. Some say that folding is easier and doesn’t require an extra set of hands. Mom insists that folding takes a special knack that she never learned, and so she opts to tie.

Whether folded or tied, tamales are one of the best-tasting foods there is. Maybe it’s that they’re made with such care and intention by so many loving hands. Maybe it’s the stories that get told during the hours of making, the laughter that is spilled.

We eat our tamales on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, smothered in red chile, or my favorite—on top of a bowl of posole (I’ll save that recipe for another day) and then the whole thing smothered with red chile. That’s all the nourishment I need.

Happy holidays to you and yours, whatever it is that sustains you this time of year. (And to my sister in Denver and her husband, my nieces and nephews-in-law, and my grand-niece and nephews—we love you and miss you!)

Online Resources

Corn, Maize, Masa, Nixatamal, Pozole by gourmetsleuth.com
A Thumbnail History of Mexican Food by Mexican Mercados
Making Tamales, by fellow blogger Corina of Wasted Days and Wasted Nights

Read Full Post »