‘La víspera de Navidad,” Christmas vespers, what we call Christmas Eve, was a favorite time for young children in Spanish- and Mexican-era California.
At the ranchos and the mission pueblos such as San Luis Obispo, San Miguel and Santa Barbara, the children would climb onto the flat-tile or brea (tar) covered roofs of the adobes. From this position, they could look down on the festivities.
Rancheros rode into town in elaborate dress. Some came on horseback with beautifully tooled and silver-inlaid saddles.
Others arrived in “carretas” or ox carts. The carretas were colorfully decorated for the feast of the nativity, a practice begun during Europe’s Middle Ages. Our modern practice of floats for parades comes from this tradition.
Christmas Eve was also called “La Noche Buena,” The Good Night. The celebration centered on the midnight or vigil Mass celebrated both in the mission churches and in private chapels at the larger ranchos. Joaquín Estrada’s family often used the old stone assistencía of Santa Margarita de Cortona, which still stands under the shelter of a barn on the Santa Margarita Ranch. Here, rough cholos — locals of mixed American Indian ancestry — and elegantly decked out rancheros and their families would observe the religious rites.
This was followed by “Los Pastorelas” The Shepherds Play. Young people in appropriate costume would act out the roles of the events in Bethlehem as described in the Gospel of Luke. The staging was accompanied by the notes of a sprightly guitar and where possible, an Indian orchestra led by Fathers Juan Bautista Sancho or Narciso Duran.
Father Florencio Ibáñez of the Soledad Mission in the Salinas Valley composed a special Pastorelas for the arrival of the royal governor, José Arrillaga in 1800. This became the favorite version of the play. A copy of it is in the Mariano Vallejo papers in the Bancroft Library.
There was always a great deal of comic relief. The company included the hermit clown, Ermitano; the lazy vagabond, Bartolo; Lucifer the Devil, who was booed by the audience; and the archangel Gabriel.
Pío Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, delighted in playing the part of Bato, the chief shepherd, at several of the missions.
In the pueblos, the party might continue with a Posadas, going from house to house, emulating the Holy Family in its search for shelter, celebrated nightly from Dec. 16 to 24.
Celebrate the tradition At 2 p.m. on Dec. 6, you will have the opportunity to participate in an early mission-era Pastorelas play at the culmination of a musical celebration of the Winter Solstice.
The rich traditions of the Solstice event, the shortest day of the year, will be demonstrated by members of the Salinan tribe. I will give a brief introduction to the cross-cultural linkages that bonded the music of George Frederick Handel’s Messiah and William Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job to the Californio celebrations of the early 19th century.
North County’s 25-member New World Baroque Orchestra, with a community chorus directed by John Warren, and members of the combined Paso Robles High School choirs conducted by Mary Schmutz will be performing for the fifth annual Handel’s Messiah Winter Holiday Concert at the newly restored Mission San Miguel Arcángel church.
At the end of the Pastorelas, there will be a special ceremony calling for the return of the precious violin made of bay laurel and other native California woods by José Carabajal in 1798. The historic violin went missing from Mission San Antonio de Padua in neighboring southern Monterey County in 2003.
Tickets are available at the mission gift shop, the parish office, the Atascadero and Paso Robles chambers of commerce, and at the door.
General seating is $15 for adults, $5 for children ages 5 to 12, kids younger than 5 get in free, and special reserved seating is $25. For more information, please call 239-3022 or 467-2131.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.