Not Your Average Christmas Ham
Updated: Sep 10, 2018
I don’t remember much about living in Florida. After all, I was only three years old then, but the nights my family spends looking through photo albums around the dinner table long after we have finished eating are nights when I get back little snippets of how things were back then. One memory I do have is that when we first moved back to New Jersey, during dinner time my sister and I would habitually ask for what we wanted to drink with our meal in Spanish. Apple juice was always my beverage of choice so, “Jugo de manzana, por favor,” became a frequently used phrase in my limited vocabulary at around four years of age. It was little habits I didn’t give a second thought to like this one that I now realize were the bits of my Hispanic heritage sprinkled into my daily life.
Some days more than others I really get to experience my culture, specifically on Christmas. For as long as I can remember my family has eaten lechón (pork), arroz con gandules (rice and beans), with a variety of little side dishes to accompany the main course. I have no problem with change in different aspects of my life, but the consistency of having this same meal every year on December 24th is something I appreciate and can expect no matter what the rest of the year had thrown at me. Whether there is snow on the ground or not, crazy uncles accompanying us or not, seeing my mother standing on one leg with the other one perched up against her knee preparing the marinade for the massive slab of pork is something that comes along every year in December.
Recently, I have uncovered the meaning behind the pork dinner tradition. In Puerto Rico, eating pork as opposed to chicken is good luck because when a pig walks its head goes forward, but when a chicken walks its head goes back before going forward. Symbolically the way that the pig walks refers to going forward with life and leaving the past behind, something I, and many that I know need some practice with.
It isn’t just the pork on Christmas eve that gives me a literal taste of my Latina background. There are other subtle traditions and superstitions that my family takes part in. Like whenever we go to visit my grandparents in Puerto Rico, my grandmother lights a candle for the duration of our plane ride. Or every morning we are greeted by kisses on the cheek and fresh bread that we refer to as “Granpa’s Bread.” Contrary to what the name may suggest, our grandfather does not bake this bread, although he has tried to convince me of this every summer since I was seven.
During our visits to Puerto Rico for lunch, we typically have—you guessed it—pork, from a little store in town. We alternate between grandparents’ houses for dinner, and listen to stories of our parents’ childhoods and teenage years that we have heard so many times before but laugh at every single time. Then each night I try to fall asleep despite the shuffling of dominos and music coming from the patio.
I’ve realized that even though I can’t see my grandparents every holiday like others, I am fortunate to still have them in my life at this age. Their stories and cooking and how they give me their blessings through a “dios de bendiga” over the phone are ways that I have learned about my heritage. The pork on Christmas is a physical reminder of the fortunes I have in my life. I suppose there are some traditions, and family bonds that just simply cannot be broken.