Times Past

Rancheros riding into town and Christmas piñatas. Holidays in California have changed

Henry Chapman Ford’s watercolor of the ruins of the Asistencia Santa Margarita de Cortona.
Henry Chapman Ford’s watercolor of the ruins of the Asistencia Santa Margarita de Cortona.

A fire nearly destroyed Mission San Luis Obispo at Christmas in 1781.

According to Father Jose Caveller, a baptized Native American or neophyte from Baja California carelessly discharged a firearm during the celebration — possibly at the Gloria of the midnight mass.

Such fires were the common scourge of the first California missions with their tule roofs. Fortunately, in 1781, the congregation provided ample volunteer firefighters, and damage was kept to a minimum.

This Christmas, what is now called the Christmas vigil mass begins at 10 p.m., and while the bells will be rung for the Gloria, there won’t be any gunfire.

Christmas customs do change over time.

In the pueblos, the party often began with a posadas, going from house to house, emulating the Holy Family in its search for shelter, celebrated nightly from Dec. 16-24. Daily, today, desperate families search for safe haven. They, too, are holy families.

La Véspera de Navidad (Christmas Vespers), what we call Christmas Eve, was a favorite time for young children in Spanish and Mexican California. At the ranchos and mission pueblos like Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, children climbed onto the flat tile or brea (tar) covered roofs of the adobes. There 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 (ox carts) colorfully decorated for the feast of the nativity, a practice begun during Europe’s Middle Ages. Our modern practice of parade floats 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 in missions and in private chapels at the larger ranchos. Joaquín Estrada’s family often heard mass in the old stone assistencía, formerly the assistant mission, of Santa Margarita de Cortona which still stands under the shelter of a barn on the old Santa Margarita Ranch. Rough cholos or cowboys and elegantly deck out ranchero families were there.

This was often followed by the presentation of Los Pastorelas (the shepherds). Young people in appropriate costume acted out the rôles of the events in Bethlehem as described in the Gospel of Luke. The staging was accompanied by the notes of a sprightly guitar.

The performance was enlivened with a great deal of comic relief.

There’d be the hermit clown, Ermitano, the lazy vagabond Bartolo, Lucifer the Devil, who was booed by the audience, and the archangel Gabriel.

Father Florencio Ibáñez of Soledad Mission composed a special Pastorelas for the arrival of Royal Governor José Arrilaga in 1800. This became the favorite version of the play. A copy of it is in the Mariano Vallejo papers in the Bancroft Library.

Pío Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, delighted in playing the part of Bato, the chief shepherd. The Vallejos, even as adults at their

Sonoma home, loved to take part. But the old general later recalled that the most applause was for Jacinto Rodríguez as the Devil. He’d walk along the rugged Sonoma County coast rehearsing against the roar of the waves, enhancing his rôle with fearful shouts and crazy gestures. Young boys hid in the brush, enthralled this special “private” performance.

By the 1840s blindfolded children swung at a Christmas piñata, with a shower of cactus candies and tiny gifts following a good hit.

This column is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Liz is a retired children’s librarian, and Dan is Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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