When I arrived around 1, their mom had already been hard at work for hours, preparing all the ingredients, including corn that had been cooked and ground by hand to make the dough. There were several large bowls outside on the table, one containing the corn dough, another corn dough mixture that had spices added, giving it a reddish-brown colour, and others with rice, potato, peas and meat. Being vegetarian, I normally don't eat tamales at Christmas, since they usually have either meat or chicken in them, but my friends have made me a vegetarian one previous years, and this year we made a few vegetarian ones as well.
If it doesn't have meat in it, they call it 'mudo' (literally translated, it usually means 'mute'). I didn't want my mudo tamales to get mixed up with the others, so Manuel tied a string around mine to differentiate it. He laughingly told me no one would voluntarily take a mudo one, that's considered the worst of the lot. When they were growing up, if the meat finished up in the tamale making process, but there were still other ingredients left, their mom would continue making mudo ones until all the ingredients were finished, so there would be no waste. The kids wouldn't know which ones were mudo until they bit into one, and once food was on your plate, you had to finish it. Apparently tears were shed over the agony of having to eat an entire mudo tamale. If I had grown up in their house, I guess I could have made lots of friends, taking the mudo ones off their hands :)
The tamales get assembled on top of a boiled banana leaf. In the past, the banana leaf alone was the wrapping, but now, the Munoz family also uses a sheet of aluminum foil so that they can be wrapped up more tightly, with the banana leaf still inside of the aluminum foil to help to give the tamale flavour. On top of the banana leaf, you put a big spoonful of the corn 'masa', then the other spicy corn masa, then a handful of each of the other ingredients. Next, you roll it up, making sure to tuck it tightly in, and compact the ingredients together when folding up the side edges, so that the finished product will have a firm, tightly packed consistency. Once all the tamales are assembled, they go into a pot of boiling water for around an hour. They're done when the potatoes inside have been cooked all the way through (all the other ingredients are already cooked, so the boiling process just firms up the dough and cooks the potato). Take them out of the water, and straight to your plate for a delicious dinner!