It was a time of fear and awe for Paleolithic humans. The hours of daylight were growing shorter at a frightening rate.
The winter solstice, Dec. 23, marks the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.
The early religions compensated for this dread by devising winter ceremonies celebrating the solstice as a time of renewal.
The festivals became the most elaborate and lavish event in both civic and religious calendars.
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The Romans celebrated Saturnalia with lots of greenery, bright lights and generous works of charity. The Scandinavians and Germans lit yule logs and served special foods. The Scandinavians continue to call Christmas Jul.
The importance of light at the time of the solstice entered into the design of the California missions.
Reuben Mendoza, director of the Institute for Archaeology at CSU Monterey Bay, first observed and documented the Solstice illuminations at Mission San Juan Bautista near Hollister more than a decade ago.
As the date of the solstice approached, the light of the sun rising over the Gabilan Mountains shone through the single east-facing window and illuminated the altar.
Reuben is convinced that this illumination was no accident. It was intentionally put into the alignment and design of the church.
The solstice event would have produced a sacred moment in the hearts and minds of both the Franciscans and the Native American peoples to whom they ministered.
Reuben ascertained the same phenomenon in several other missions, most especially at our own San Miguel Arcángel.
The illumination of St. Michael the Archangel in his suit of Roman armor is spectacular.
It was Michael (San Miguel), who, in a primordial struggle, cast Lucifer from heaven as described in the biblical Book of Genesis. He was there before the beginning of time to defend us in battle with the forces of evil.
The effect becomes even more awe-inspiring because of the dramatic, three dimensional “All Seeing Eye of God” just above the 18th-century statue of San Miguel.
On Friday and next Sunday, The New World Baroque Orchestra under the direction of John Warren will celebrate the approach of the solstice at a more reasonable hour than sunrise.
The orchestra will be joined by the combined Paso Robles High School Choirs conducted by Mary Schmutz performing their sixth annual Winter Holiday Concert featuring excerpts from Handel’s “Messiah” at the newly restored Mission San Miguel Arcángel Church.
The event will include music and performances celebrating the seasonal traditions of the Jewish Hanukkah and the Native Californian solstice ceremonies.
Because of the popularity of this event, there will be two performances: The program will be performed in the Mission San Miguel church on Friday at 7:30 p.m. and again on Sunday, Dec. 5 at 2 p.m.
The Sunday program will also include the historical Pastorela Shepherd’s play from the early days of the mission.
Admission for Friday is a donation of $10 for all seating. For Sunday, the donation for premium seating is $25, general seating for adults $20 and $10 for children younger than 12.
Tickets are available at the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce, the San Miguel Mission office and gift store and at the door. For information, please call 467-2131 or 239-3022.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association. His column is published Sundays.