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Holiday Traditions of South Texas

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December, 8, 2015

By: Karen Stigar, Digital Media Coordinator

The holidays are a time to join family and honor our history and heritage. In our community, we have a diverse range of cultures, and each of these groups celebrates individual holiday traditions that make South Texas unique during the holidays. At the Witte, we celebrate South Texas traditions with our permanent collection in the Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg South Texas Heritage Center as well as through educational programs such as Time Travel Saturday and La Tamalada, which invite visitors to share their traditions and learn about new ones.

Many South Texas holiday traditions can be traced back to Latin American and Spanish cultures. Tamales are a popular tradition and can be found on tables across South Texas during the holiday season.

This customary dish is thought to have originated around 7,000 B.C., with the domestication of corn by indigenous cultures in Mexico and Central America. Tamales first made their way to the U.S. with Spanish expansion, and have played a significant role in San Antonio’s culinary heritage. In the 1800s, women known as “Chili Queens” sold delicious chili and other fare- like tamales- at makeshift stands in the plazas of old San Antonio. Today you can buy tamales at grocery stores but, the long labor-intensive process of la tamalada, making tamales together, is the key ingredient in celebrating this unique holiday tradition. 

Another well-known South Texas holiday tradition is the creation of a Nacimiento, or Nativity Scene, at your home during the Christmas season. These scenes depict traditional figures from the nativity story including the Three Kings, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus in a stable. Though this tradition is popular throughout Christian culture and in many regions, its origins come from the 1200s with the first Nacimiento in a cave outside Greccio, Italy on Christmas Eve. St. Francis of Assisi was appalled by the greed of the people of the town, so he started this tradition to illustrate that Jesus was born humble and poor, not as a wealthy king. Though there are many variations, the tradition remains as a reminder of the meaning and spirit of Christmas across many cultures and in South Texas.

The holiday play, Los Pastores (The Shepherds), shares the theme of Nacimiento and tells the story of the journey of Mary, Joseph, the Three Kings and the shepherds to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. Los Pastores depicts the triumph of light and goodness over evil. The Witte has hosted performances of the play since the 1930s and the beloved tradition continues to this day.

The triumph of good over evil, or light over dark, is a theme that stretches across many cultural traditions during the winter. Chanukah, an eight-day Jewish celebration of light over dark, commemorates the victory of the Maccabees in the 2nd century B.C., and the subsequent miracle of a tiny supply of oil that lasted for eight days and nights. South Texans who observe this holiday gather with family each night at sundown to light the candles of the menorah and enjoy traditional foods like latkes, pancakes made from grated potatoes, and other delicacies cooked with oil in honor of this ancient victory. 

What are the traditions you and your family celebrate during the holidays?