Times Past

In early 1800s, Christmas in Mexican California was a lively affair

A scene from a traditional Pastorelas.
A scene from a traditional Pastorelas.

Lucifer tried to thwart Christmas.

There were only a handful of Americans in Alta California in 1828 when Alfred Robinson was invited to participate in a “Californio Christmas.”

Christmases in early Mexican California were a lively affair complete with fireworks, food and drink, guitar music and a play showing the conflict between good and evil. It was a New Englander’s introduction to life in Mexico’s remote outpost.

In 1828, Robinson sailed from Boston as a clerk on the ship Brookline, which was under contract to the shipping and hide-trading firm of Bryant and Sturgis.

California Gov. José Maria Echeandia gave Robinson permission to trade for hides at La Playa, the beach at the base of the Presidio, or fort, that guarded the entrance to Mission Valley in San Diego.

In 1829, Robinson moved to the Estudillo family adobe. The family consisted of the old lady Dominguez; Don Jose Antonio; his wife, Dona Victoria; two children; and three servants. The adobe was the center of social life in the small pueblo of San Diego.

In 1908, sugar baron John D. Spreckles restored the decaying building, turning it into “Ramona’s Marriage Place” to attract tourists. It soon became a lucrative wedding venue for young couples who had read Helen Hunt Jackson’s bestselling 1884 novel featuring fictional heroine Ramona.

It was nearly time for the religious festival of “La Noche Buena” — The Good Night, or Christmas.

Don Jose Antonio Estudillo ordered a performance of the traditional Christmas “Las Pastorelas” or shepherd’s play. Rehearsals went on for many days.

Robinson liked the lifestyle here. He later married into Santa Barbara’s famed De la Guerra family at a wedding described by Richard Henry Dana in his classic “Two Years before the Mast.” Robinson returned to the East Coast and in 1846 published “Life in California.” He gives us the earliest written description of a Christmas celebration in Mexican California. It took place in the chapel of the San Diego Presidio:

“At an early hour illuminations commenced, fireworks were set off, and all was rejoicing. The church bells rang merrily, and long before the time of Mass the pathways leading to the Presidio were enlivened by crowds hurrying to devotion. I accompanied Don Jose Antonio (Estudillo), who procured for me a stand where I could see distinctly everything that took place.

“The Mass commenced, Padre Vicente de Oliva officiated, and after the mysterious ‘sacrificio’ he produced a small image representing the infant Savior, which he held in his hands for all who chose to approach and kiss.

“After this, the tinkling of the guitar was heard without, the body of the church was cleared, and immediately commenced the harmonious sounds of a choir of voices. The characters entered in procession, adorned with appropriate costume, and bearing banners.

“There were six females representing shepherdesses, three men and a boy. One of the men personated Lucifer, one a hermit, and the other Bartolo, a lazy vagabond, while the boy represented the archangel Gabriel. The story of their performance is partially drawn from the Bible, and commences with the angel’s appearance to the shepherds, his account of the birth of our Savior, and exhortation to them to repair to the scene of the manger.

“Lucifer appears among them, and endeavors to prevent the prosecution of their journey. His influence and temptations are about to succeed, when Gabriel again appears and frustrates their effect.”

Lucifer is thwarted and the Holy Family finds refuge in the stable.

I have often wondered how Alfred Robinson, raised by Puritanical Yankees, must have felt about seeing the Devil personified in what was, albeit a skit, performed in a church.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.