Fr. Castañeda recalls Christmases in his native Guatemala

By Jeff Kurowski | The Compass | December 11, 2013

Tamal Colorado, a Guatemalan tamale dish, is his favorite Christmas meal

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]GREEN BAY — Next month, Fr.  José Castañeda will return to his homeland of Guatemala for the first time since February of 2012. In addition to spending time with family and friends, Fr. Castañeda, administrator at St. Philip the Apostle Parish in Green Bay, looks forward to celebrating the feast of El Cristo Negro (the Black Christ of Esquipulas) on Jan. 15.

Fr.  José Castañeda, pictured at the Lambeau Field Atrium on Thanksgiving, where he offered an opening prayer, said tamales are a favorite Christmas treat in Guatemala. (Scott Eastman | For The Compass)
Fr. José Castañeda, pictured at the Lambeau Field Atrium on Thanksgiving, where he offered an opening prayer, said tamales are a favorite Christmas treat in Guatemala. (Scott Eastman | For The Compass)

The shrine of El Cristo Negro is one of the most visited sacred sites in the Americas. A crucifix, which dates back to the 16th century, is displayed for devotion and veneration in the town of Esquipulas, located near the country’s borders with El Salvador and Honduras. During a 1996 visit, Pope John Paul II described El Cristo Negro as “This most perfect and complete image of Christ on the cross.”

Fr. Castañeda explained that the feast serves as the close to more than a month of celebrations in Guatemala. Advent kicks off the season and is marked by lights on the streets and some of the houses, said Fr. Castañeda.

“The bill in December for electricity is really high, so some people don’t use it,” he said. “Traditionally, we have a little Nativity (scene) in the house. Catholics may or may not have a Christmas tree, but always a Nativity.”

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The Nativity scene at Fr. Castañeda’s family home in Cuyotenago in southern Guatemala stands out.

“In my family, we have four baby Jesuses. One was traditional, one was my grandma’s, one was a gift from a friend, and when my older sister was born, my grandma gave her one. People say that they feel sorry for Mary because she had four babies,” he said with a laugh.

“At midnight (Christmas Eve), we have the tradition to put the baby in the Nativity,” he added. “The baby does not have clothes. For the new year, they have a beautiful dress for the baby for the presentation.”

Schools in Guatemala, a predominately Catholic country,  are only closed during the months of November and December. This allows for families to take part in festivities, including music, dance and city parades.

“December is a beautiful time for Advent celebrations,” said Fr. Castañeda. “The Immaculate Conception and (Our Lady of) Guadalupe are big celebrations. We continue with the Posadas, Mary and Joseph knock on the door. You will hear fireworks every place.”

Although fireworks are set off throughout Advent and the Christmas season, the tradition in Guatemala is fireworks displays at midnight and again at noon on Christmas.

In January, Fr. Castañeda will visit with his father, José Antonio; his sisters, Zulma, Celia and Antonieta; and his three-year-old nephew, Jonathan. His brother, Gustavo, lives in Chicago.

“It will be nice to see my family,” he said. “They spend Christmas together. Two of my sisters (Zulma and Celia) are married, so they will spend New Year’s with their in-laws. I will also share time with my friends, childhood friends who now have their own families. It’s also a good time to share with my seminarian friends. They are priests now, pastors. I will take some days to travel to their parishes and share with them.”

Tamal Colorado: Ingredients
• 1 cup plus 3 tbsp. canola oil
• 1 1-lb. piece boneless pork shoulder;
salt, to taste
• plum tomatoes, cored and roughly chopped
• 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
• 2 ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded, and roughly chopped
• 1 small white onion, roughly chopped
• 1 tsp. distilled white vinegar
• 1 tsp. sugar
• 13 14” x 14” pieces fresh or frozen
and thawed banana leaf, trimmed of hard edges, rinsed, and patted dry
• 1 tsp. achiote paste (ground annatto seed and spices); optional
• 2 cups masa harina (corn flour for tamales; preferably Maseca brand)
• 1 cup rice flour
• 1/4 cup capers, rinsed
• 15-20 large pitted green olives
• 1/2 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and
thinly sliced

Even though he will not be in Guatemala on Christmas Eve, Fr. Castañeda will not miss out on the traditional dish. Antonieta has agreed to freeze some tamales for him.

“I have three good sisters who love to cook,” he said.

The Tamal Colorado is one of the most common tamales in Guatemala. It is made from a cooked maize dough with a tomato-based sauce and pork, chicken or turkey inside. On Christmas Eve, it is common to serve the tamales with ponche, a hot fruit punch.

“There has been a little change in the country and more influence from the United States,” said Fr. Castañeda. “Some people like to have turkey or chicken for Christmas, but the traditional families have tamales.”

The U.S. influence is also found in shopping. Two years ago, the Guatemalan version of black Friday started in November, said Fr. Castañeda, but the focus for most is not on gifts. His family, for example, does not exchange gifts for Christmas. They do give birthday gifts.

“I would compare Christmas in Guatemala to Thanksgiving in the United States,” he said. “It’s not a time they are thinking about gifts. It’s not a time they are thinking about shopping. It’s a time they are thinking about being with family. It’s a time that we can share together.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_message color=”alert-info”]Fr. Castañeda shares recipe for Guatemalan tamales


These banana leaf wrapped tamales are covered with an outer layer of foil, which ensures that they stay closed when steamed. Alternatively, the foil may be omitted and the tamales tied with kitchen twine. (Parchment paper may be substituted for the banana leaves.)

1: Heat 2 tbsp. oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Season pork with salt; cook, turning occasionally, until browned, 10-12 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Cut pork into 3”-4”-long slices about 1?2” thick and set aside.

2: To make the chile sauce: Purée tomatoes, garlic, chiles, onions, and 1?4 cup water in a blender. Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Slowly add purée, vinegar, sugar and salt; boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer, stirring occasionally, until thick, about 40 minutes. Set sauce aside.

3: Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Toast 10 banana leaf pieces in skillet, one at a time, turning once, 20-30 seconds. Transfer to a plate. Alternately layer banana leaves, dull side up, with 14” squares of foil; trim protruding leaves.

4: To make the corn-flour dough: Put achiote paste and 1 quart warm water into a bowl. Mash paste with your fingers to dissolve. Add masa harina, rice flour, remaining oil, and 2 tbsp. salt; whisk. Transfer mixture to a medium pot; cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until dough is very thick and pulls away from sides of pot, 6-8 minutes. Transfer dough to a bowl.

5: To assemble the tamales: Place about 1?2 cup dough into middle of a banana leaf; form dough into a 4” square. Top with 2 pieces pork, 4-5 capers, 1-2 olives, 2 slices bell pepper, and about 2 tbsp. chile sauce. Fold sides of banana leaf over filling to make a snug rectangular package. Repeat process with remaining dough, pork, capers, olives, peppers, and a little chile sauce to make 10 tamales in all. (Reserve remaining chile sauce for another use.)

6: Place a large collapsible steamer inside a deep wide pot; pour in enough water for a depth of 1”. Line steamer with the 3 remaining banana leaf pieces. Arrange tamales in steamer, standing them upright. Cover pot; boil. Reduce heat to medium and steam tamales, covered, until firm and cooked through, 45-50 minutes. Unwrap; serve tamales hot or at room temperature.[/vc_message][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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