EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – The smell of tamales cooking.
The twinkling of luminarias lighting up Scenic Drive near the University of Texas at El Paso, Keystone Heritage Park in El Paso’s Upper Valley or the New Mexico State University campus.
And posadas, the theatrical and musical re-enactment of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in Bethlehem after a long journey through dangerous lands.
Christmastime in the Borderland has a different feel to it.
“Every single element of our celebrations is about community,” said Selfa Chew, an associate history professor at UTEP.
Chew said the Borderland has a handful of holiday traditions that set it apart during the holidays.
The trinity, so to speak, is the cooking and sharing of tamales, luminaria displays and posadas – the ritual re-enactment of the Nativity story with music, food and special holiday beverages like ponche, a hot fruit punch.
The story of Mary and Joseph especially resonates in the Borderland, since so many people themselves are immigrants or they know someone who has made the difficult journey to a new life here in the United States.
The posada “is part of our identity, because of the pilgrimage, the fact they are traveling and are trying to find a refuge, a place to establish their family,” Chew said. “It really resonates in our community in El Paso.”
At every posada, there is a home that is opened to the people who are in the procession, just like migrants are looking for someone to welcome them to their new homes, Chew said.
Of course, a posada features food, beverages like ponche, hot chocolate and even coffee and typically they end with splitting open a piñata.
Pinatas “always bring happiness,” Chew said. “The fact you break open an object and it explodes with goodies, brings candies, sometimes little toys and everyone laughs.”
Originally, most pinatas were in the shape of a star and were linked to the sky and also the seven deadly sins in the Christian tradition, Chew explained.
By breaking open a pinata, you are breaking from the past and have a clean future to work on, she added.
“It is hope, happiness and beautiful,” Chew said.
Tamales are another Borderland tradition. Tamales are a lot of work to make from scratch, and often involve family and friends coming together to help make them.
“The party starts when the moment we start putting together all the ingredients and calling people to help out,” Chew said.
Each family often has their own recipe for tamales, and that lends itself to the festive ritual of sharing tamales among different families and groups. And using that as an excuse to catch up and exchange holiday greetings.
Tamales “don’t taste the same; they are delicious, but they are different,” Chew said. “It is also about visiting other families and finding out how they are doing, exchanging information about new events in their lives.”
Basically, cooking and sharing tamales is a way to bring people together over the holidays.
“From the first minute we start to prepare them to the time we are eating them,” Chew said.
Luminarias – often as simple as a paper bag with a candle — are another Borderland fixture. They can be made of more elaborate materials like clay but they provide a scenic backdrop when hundreds or thousands are used to decorate a street, a school campus or a neighborhood.
They are “just a symbol of life and warmth and the direction we want to go in,” Chew said. “They represent hope and the simple beauty of life.”