12/17/2010 11:29 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tamales and Roses: Guadalupe as an American Holiday Icon

In my family we have a new holiday tradition. On the evening of Dec. 11 we go across the street to the neighborhood Catholic church -- called "Our Lady of Guadalupe" -- to celebrate the feast of the patron saint of Mexico, the same Lady of Guadalupe for whom the church is named.

The annual celebration of Guadalupe is quite an event. All night long pilgrims bring flowers into the church -- some of the faithful are dressed in Aztec garb, some are dressed like campesinos. They dance through the nave and up to the altar, remembering, as they do, the miracle of Guadalupe, when, in 1519, the Virgin appeared outside of Mexico City in the form of an indigenous girl, speaking the Nuahatl language to an indigenous man, named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. St. Juan Diego -- for now he is a saint -- proved the apparition of the Blessed Virgin by bringing the bishop heaven-sent roses which he had wrapped in his serape. When he presented the flowers, a miraculous image of Mary was left behind on the serape.

The presentation of flowers at the festival lasts into the wee hours of the morning, when, at sunrise, the faithful gather for a mass that concludes with the congregation singing "Las Mañanitas", the traditional Mexican birthday song, to Our Lady.

Outside the church it's an all-night festival. Aztec dancers move their bodies to the pounding beat of drums. Mariachis perform. There is an outdoor shrine with candles lit not just to the Virgin of Guadalupe but also to lesser folk saints such as Santa Muerte, Jesus Malverde, and Toribio Romo.

Vendors sell everything from rosary beads to Dora the Explorer blankets, and the food -- my God -- the food is heavenly.

We've lived in this neighborhood for several years, and for most of those years I've joined in the celebration of Guadalupe alone -- slipping away after the kids were in bed -- but now that our children are old enough to stay up a little past their bedtime, we make an outing of it. We watch the dancers as we eat tacos and tamales and sip thick, hot champurrado, a traditional Mexican beverage made of sweetened cornmeal and seasoned with cinnamon and vanilla.

Usually the kids pick up some cheap toys, and this year, in addition, the family purchased a marvelous piece of awful religious "art" -- an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe holding Pope John Paul II to her breast as the late pontiff kisses the palm of her hand. "Eewww! She's nursing him", my nine-year-old daughter observed. My impressions (which I kept to myself) were slightly less innocent, but we all agreed that we needed to buy the picture for a Catholic priest friend of ours who finds humor in such items.

I cannot wait for the celebration to happen again next year.

The feast of Guadalupe is a distinctly Mexican holiday, and it may be worth asking why my family celebrates the holiday when none of us were born in Mexico or have Mexican ancestors.

The answer is this: we celebrate the feast of Guadalupe because it is a beautiful thing to do and because it is an American thing to do.

Most of the elements common to the celebration of Christmas in America were brought here by immigrants. St. Nicholas comes from Turkey by way of Holland where he changed his name to Santa Claus and exchanged his fez for a 'Where's Waldo' hat. The Christmas tree comes from Germany, the Créche was invented by St. Francis in Italy but it has a French name. Mistletoe and holly come from Britain. I don't know where stockings come from, but I doubt it was Des Moines.

Why shouldn't the feast of Guadalupe be included on the list of immigrant celebrations that add to the wonder and joy of Christmas in the United States?

Some uniquely American holiday traditions also make days merry and bright in our home. At some point in the next few weeks we'll probably watch It's A Wonderful Life together -- it's a great film, and the late Donna Reed was my aunt, so that film is a joyful family obligation for us. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer also may entertain us. It isn't nearly as good as It's a Wonderful Life, but who doesn't like Yukon Cornelius?

Christmas in America is a multi-cultural event. It's beautiful, and if you're in the neighborhood next year, please join my family for some tamales and champurrado as we wish the Virgin of Guadalupe a joyous birthday with many happy returns.