(Note: the following is excerpted from my book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl)
December 12: Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe
Every year, on December 12th, between 18-20 million make the pilgrimage to the Basilica de la Virgén de Guadalupe to celebrate her feast or saint’s day, making it Christianity’s most visited sanctuary. Thousands of Mexicans come from their pueblos to Mexico City, many on bicycle, riding through the night for long, dark cold hours. Indigenous people, young and old, make up a significant number of those visiting the hilltop. Many walk or run from their villages, some barefoot, carrying torches and banners to show their devotion and even ascend the stairs on their knees.
Small Mexican boys are dressed in peasant clothes and are called Juan Diegitos; mustaches painted on their faces. On their tilmas (a sort of poncho), the image of Guadalupe appears as she did on the cloth of Juan Diego, the humble man who to whom she first appeared, centuries ago.
The girls are dressed as la Malinche, one of the most important figures in Mexican history. An Aztec woman who bore a son to Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez (whose discovery of what is now Mexico started the chain of events that ended with the Spanish Conquest); since her son was a mixture of Spanish and Indian blood, she is widely and considered the mother of the “First Mexican”.
The traditional costume for the girls is an embroidered blouse and a gathered flowered skirt, with a brightly colored shawl called a rebozo, draped over their shoulders, their hair in long trenzas (braids). The girls carry baskets of flowers. Often, the costume includes pilgrimage essential, even though these children are too young to make the trip. They may be equipped with a costalito (a bag made from sacks from rice or flour), filled with all the necessary items, like water, a petate (a sort of rug made of palm leaves for sleeping) and easy-to-carry food like tamales; everything they might have needed were they actually making a long pilgrimage.
Atole: History and a Chocolate Atole (Champurrado) Recipe
A traditional beverage served on Dia de La Virgencita is atole, a corn-based drink that has been part of the lexicon of Mexican food since Aztec times.
As early as 1651, the process by which atole was made was noted by botanist Francisco Hernandez in a report on the use of plants in Nueva España. :
Atolli was eight parts water and six parts maize, plus lime, cooked until soft. The maize was then ground and cooked again until it thickened
This description of Mexican atoles by Englishwoman Fanny Chambers Gooch,
written in 1887, gives us some interesting insight into the varieties of the time:
‘I found plain atole much the same in appearance as gruel of Indian meal, but much better in taste, having the slight flavor of the lime in which the corn is soaked, and the
advantage of being ground on the metate, which preserves a substance lost in grinding in a mill. . . . Atole de leche, (milk), by adding chocolate takes the name of champurrado
if the bark of cacao is added, it becomes atole de cascara; if red chile—- chile atole. If, instead, any of these agua miel, sweet water of the maguey, is added, it is called atole de agua miel; if piloncillo, the native brown sugar, again the name is modified to atole de pinolei’
There is evidence of mixing atole with chocolate as far back as the Mayan era. In the Yucatan today, where the strongest Mayan influences remain, they serve a thick, chocolate-flavored atole called tanchcua, to which allspice, honey ad black pepper is added. Although the following recipe uses milk, it is common in Mexico to skip the milk and make champurrado with water. Experiment… there are so many ways to make this!
Champurrado (makes 6 small cups)
1 cup prepared tortilla masa (Maseca brand or equivalent) or fresh tortilla
masa (not tamale masa)
1 cup milk
5 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
1 Mexican chocolate (available in Latino markets under brand names Ibarro or Abuelita, Rancho Gordo stocks a wonderful hand-crafted stoneground Mexican Chocolate)
1 cinnamon stick
6 oz. sugar or 1 ½ piloncillo, grated (available in Mexican markets)
1 cup milk
Blend masa with a cup of water by hand or with a blender;, be sure there are no lumps
left. Add a second cup of water gradually;, continue blending. Warm upHeat the remaining water in a saucepan. Once boiling, lower to medium heat and add cinnamon, chocolate, and sugar or piloncillo. Once the chocolate is dissolved and starts to boil, add masa mixture and stir constantly to avoid lumps and to keep from sticking to the bottom of pan. Lower heat to medium and continue stirring until masa is cooked (30 minutes), then add milk and stir for 5 more minutes. (You may want to use a molinillo to finish off your atole, it adds a lovely foam and will get out any lumps of masa that might remain.)