As a child Christmas meant two things; tamales and biscochos, everything else was icing on the cake, including the gifts. A biscocho is a traditional Mexican Christmas and wedding cookie that gets most of its distinctive flavor from combining cinnamon and anise. Right after Thanksgiving I knew my grandmother and mother would start their yearly ritual of making tamales and biscochos. My grandmother made tamales for her children and a few of her sisters who lived in El Paso and my mother made biscochos to give as Christmas gifts. The thrill for me came in pretending to be all grown up and helping them in the kitchen. The intoxicating aroma that came from both kitchens was enough to make a kid go loco. The constant smell of food made me hungry and excited about Christmas.
My mom’s gift giving came from making her famous biscochos. All I remember is how our house was filled with the sweet smell of sugar and canela. How I love that word, “canela,” just the mention of it, makes me think of biscochos or arroz con leche, but that’s another story. My mother would spend days making dough for the biscochos and I helped by carefully shaping the cookies using a paring knife — I felt so grown-up. We didn’t have cookie cutters, so mom and I would spend hours making these delicious morsels by hand. My mom combined the ingredients for the dough, kneaded the dough, and rolled it out on the table and I helped cut the cookies.
At a very young age my mother taught me how to make the perfect diamond shaped biscochos. I was so proud when she would say, “Mira, que bonitos.” My next job was combining sugar and canela to coat the biscochos after baking. One time I rushed through this part and in the process I broke several of them. I was afraid my mother would be disappointed because I knew how hard we had worked. I hid them from her and quickly put the broken biscochos into my pocket. I’m sure I ate the crushed cookies and licked the sugar and canela out of the lining of my pockets so she wouldn’t find out when she did the laundry. Kids are clever that way, but I’m sure she knew.
Needless to say, after hours of rolling, kneading, baking, and cutting, the biscochos were finally finished. My mother would gingerly put them into Tupperware bowls or tin containers. She would pretty them up by putting a Christmas bow on the containers. This was her gift to amigos, hermanos y hermanas. Her homemade gifts were always so well received; after all no one makes biscochos like my mother. They melt like warm butter on your tongue leaving a slight tingle because of the anise. I always thought we were so poor because my mother gave cookies instead of expensive gifts. What I didn’t know as a child is that there is no gift worth more than those made with love.
After the tamales and biscochos had been made we would all gather at the home of one of my aunts for Christmas Eve. There was always a huge tree and what seemed like a sea of presents. There were tables overflowing with food, cerveza in the coolers, and Cuco Sanchez or Vicente Fernandez playing in the background. There were a million kids running around having a good time. We all couldn’t wait to eat the delicious food and open gifts at the stroke of midnight. My aunt always found a way to buy a small gift for every single child. We all got a little something and we were very appreciative of whatever she gave us. Grandma would be sitting in the middle of it all grinning this mischievous smile, her dark eyes twinkling, and taking it all in. I’m sure it was these moments a mother lives for. These are the moments when her familia came together to eat, drink, dance, and eat some more. The stroke of midnight brought besos y abrazos, presents were passed around for opening and then more eating and drinking. Soon after, the kids lay sleeping all over the house. Our pretty Christmas dresses were wrinkled, our new zapatos were scuffed or off, our faces smothered from all the food we had eaten, but we were content and happy.
Photography by Jeanine Thurston
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