Times Past

Seasonal festivities aim to ward off evil

Are you worried about what will happen to our world with the completion of the B’ak’tun 13 on the Mayan calendar on Dec. 21? Then come to the historic church of the Archangel Michael, who casts off evil, and participate in a Pastorela from the Mission Days and a performance of Handel’s Messiah.

I can think of no better way to ward off potential danger.

It’s a historic part of celebrating La Véspera de Navidad, Christmas Vespers, a favorite time for children in Spanish and Mexican California. At the ranchos and the mission pueblos such as Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and San Miguel, the children would climb onto the flat tile or brea-covered (tar) 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 (ox carts). The carretas were colorfully decorated for the feast of the Nativity, a practice that began 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 old Santa Margarita Ranch. Here, rough cholos 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 Soledad Mission in the Salinas Valley composed a special Pastorelas for the arrival of the 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.

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. 16-24.       

There will be two performances: 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Dec. 2.

Handel’s Messiah is also on the program at Mission San Miguel, Arcángel. John Warren will direct the New World Baroque Orchestra. The combined Paso Robles High School Choirs will be conducted by Mary Schmutz.

 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 $20, premium seating $35 and VIP $50. For more information, please call


Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.