Christmas is this week, and the thoughts of Latino families across the state are set to the centerpiece of that magical night — the Christmas dinner.
Although born in the Dominican Republic, Claudia Hilario moved to Puerto Rico at the age of 12. And Puerto Rican Christmas traditions influence the way she and her family celebrate Navidad.
On Christmas Eve, Hilario and her family get together to celebrate — and that means a lot of traditional food from the island nation.
Among the foods found on the dinner table that night are pernil and pasteles. The pasteles are made with masa (dough) de platano or yucca and are filled with pork.
Pernil — a slow roasted pork leg or pork shoulder — is the heart of a Puerto Rican Christmas dinner.
“The pernil can never be left out,” Hilario said. “And neither can the pasteles.”
Christmas Eve on the island is for the big celebration when the entire family gathers, she said. And on Christmas morning gifts are opened.
“It’s also when either family who couldn’t make it to the celebration on the 24th come or you go and visit and deliver presents,” Hilario said.
Hilario moved to Connecticut in October 2018, but this will be her first Christmas celebration here. Last year, she went back to Puerto Rico to celebrate the holiday.
“I still haven’t made a pernil in my life, but I think this will be the first time,” she said.
And while finding the ingredients for a traditional meal might be a challenge, Hilario isn’t too worried.
“I’ll just go to a mercado with Hispanic food,” she said.
The dinner, she said, is heavy on the carbs.
“If you take a green salad, it will be left untouched,” she said. “It’s pretty funny.”
Making a traditional dinner for Christmas Eve is important, she said, because it is one way to maintain the tradition and culture of the island.
“Food is something that always unites us. It’s a way to keep the tradition via the flavor. I’m always looking for the flavor of Puerto Rico. And the way to keep the flavor is to make it yourself. It’s also a way for the children to learn about the culture,” Hilario said.
When it comes to the one food traditionally served in the homes of the majority of Mexican families in the United States, tamales will be the mainstay.
However, this is not the case in Mexico. While you may find them on some tables, tamales are reserved for Feb. 2 — for the celebration of La Candelaria.
Depending on the region, the main dish served for Christmas can vary widely, but the day when families get together is December 24. With December 25 being reserved for recalentado — leftovers.
Families in the central part of the country, including Mexico City and the State of Mexico, serve bacalao — dried, salted codfish — and romeritos.
Romeritos — an edible leafy foliage that belongs to the quelites family, (which in turn is similar to spinach in consistency when cooked) — resemble Rosemary but have no aroma and are completely edible.
Romeritos are cooked with mole, potatoes and torta de camaron — shrimp patties. And it’s a mainstay on the Christmas Eve dinner table in central Mexico.
In Veracruz the main dishes on table can be cerdo en ciruela, pierna adobada or pollo en adobo.
But regardless of where you are in the country, the ensalada de manzana navideña cannot be left off the table. The main ingredients of the salad are apples, raisins, nuts, crema Mexicana and celery. Some families will add other ingredients, but ensalada de manzana is always served.
December 25 is actually a quiet day and reserved for recalentado — leftovers.
Of course, many Hispanic, Latino families living in the U.S. also integrate American traditions into their Christmas meals. It isn’t uncommon for turkey and ham to be the centerpiece of dinner tables.
Like in most aspects of their life in America, this community acculturates rather than assimilates common customs in this country into their ancestral traditions; that is to say – they adopt the best of both worlds.
While some families do wait for Santa Claus and some presents are opened on Christmas day, the majority of families look forward to the arrival of the Three Kings on January 6. Gifts are usually given on both December 25 and January 6. Depending on the family, one of the two days is reserved for the fun gifts, while on the other “useful” gifts such as socks and underwear are given.
But regardless of where Latinos come from, Christmas centers on food.