Mission-era Christmases

While establishing the 21 California missions and attending to their growth and prosperity, Franciscan priests found time to teach the native Indians to play the lute, violin, trumpet, metal triangle, and to sing or chant Christ’s Mass in Latin and Christmas carols in Spanish. During the Spanish and Mexican periods, settlers and Indian neophytes enacted a church play at Christmastime known variously as Los Pastores, La Pastorela, and El Diablo en la Pastorela, derived from Spanish mystery plays of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Those who took part in the 1829 performance at San Diego rehearsed night after night, until at last Christmas Eve arrived. People lit candles, fireworks, and bonfires at an early hour. Later attendants rang church bells, summoning the faithful. Upon the twanging of a guitar, worshipers cleared a space for the entrance of the cast. After the play, the congregation gathered at the church door and greeted each other with “Feliz Noche Buena” (Happy Christmas Eve). People presented Los Pastores in missions, chapels, plazas, and private patios on Christmas Day and for several days thereafter. Performances inside the church were mostly verbal; in non-church versions, children followed the players through the streets.


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