IN THIS ISSUE
When she was very young, my sister hit on a brilliant idea for ensuring she would get her way. When she found some family activity to her particular liking, she began referring to it as “a tradition,” thereby ethically obligating us to replicate that turn of events in the future, impelled by the ritual power of the word she had harnessed. My mother made chicken fajitas for Christmas Eve dinner once—once!—and Amy was so pleased that she insisted it was now a tradition. Some fifteen-odd years later, mom still obliges every December 24. The little blonde girl spoke with a prophetic voice; even now on Christmas Eve I still get a faint craving for fajitas. Her boldness has become a family joke, and occasionally we used to wonder out loud, with air quotes, what tradition Amy will create next.
She’s been gone for 12 Christmases.
12 whole Christmases without my big sister. 12 trees of varying shapes and sizes. 12 dinners with rotating casts of attendees. 12 Christmas Eve trips to CVS for last minute stocking stuffers. 12 partial or entire viewings of A Christmas Story. 12 Christmas morning coffee cakes with the perfect streusel topping. 12 is a lot of Christmases.
I can still remember the first one after she died because it was the hardest. We didn’t know how to have Christmas without her. A holiday based on nostalgia and rituals doesn’t make sense when someone dies.
I am walking down the hallway of our old Victorian house, my socked feet slipping on the shiny hardwood floors. There are half unpacked boxes of Christmas stuff in every direction; Sparkly ornaments wrapped in old bits of newspaper yellowed with age. Complicated tangles of twinkle lights. A much beloved and slightly racist stuffed Chihuahua in a sombrero that sings “Feliz Navidad” when prompted. The smell of dust and pine and candle wax is thick in the air.
“Mom?” I call.
I’ve grown bored of hanging ornaments and think it is high time we discuss ordering a pizza for dinner. Mom made a point of bringing down all the Christmas boxes from the attic. Probably her way of saying we should still have Christmas.
My ten dozen are ready to go. Six dozen roasted green chile tamales and four dozen traditional pork ones. I used to make more of the traditional pork for the meat eaters but fucking meat eaters always smell the green chile ones and go for them and that makes the vegetarians scrounge for something else to eat as only the pork are left. I learned my lesson. So now I make more of the green chile ones so no one is alienated with the exception of those that don’t like Mexican food on Christmas.
People think this is a big Mexican tradition to do tamales at Christmas. For some I suppose it is. It isn’t for us. We had to learn to be real Mexicans. We started being tamale Mexicans about 12 years ago. Before that, we bought them from our tamale lady. Most people have a tamale lady. Mine stood in front of the 24th Street Bart Station in SF. My mom’s walked up and down her street with a Coleman cooler that looked too big for her to lift on her head. My husband had one that pushed a cart in San Pedro. It was our tradition to buy them, not make them.
I come from Mexicans that had maids and cooks. Apparently our ancestors couldn’t cook for shit. All my aunts, my mom, my cousins each only know how to make one dish. When my mom and I moved to the mountains of Plumas County, California where Mexicans number in only double digits, we were screwed. The Mexicans who live here cook for themselves. The two Mexican restaurants in the county have been catering to Anglo mountain people for so long that they have mac n cheese on the menu and the salsa tastes suspiciously like ketchup.
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