The winter solstice illuminations are a fascinating and little-known aspect of the California missions. This is the story of my trip to witness this phenomenon.
On December 21 I got up before dawn and took a trip down to Mission San Juan Bautista to see the sunrise. Why December 21 and why San Juan Bautista? According to scholars, some mission churches were built following an ancient practice in which, on certain days of the year, the sun’s rays enter and illuminate sections of the building, including statues, paintings, the high altar and tabernacle (where the Eucharist is housed). San Juan Bautista is one of the missions a solar illumination takes place on the morning of the winter solstice (the day of shortest daylight in the whole year).
At San Juan Bautista and other missions, the illuminations occur not only at the winter solstice, but at other moments, such as feast days of patron saints. Dr. Ruben Mendoza, an archaeologist from California State University Monterey Bay, has studied and documented this phenomenon for years, not only in California, but throughout Latin America. According to him, “these illuminations conveyed to native converts the rebirth of light, life and hope in the coming of the Messiah.”
[Scroll down for a link to Dr. Mendoza’s article.]
The Spanish missionaries did not invent the idea of orienting churches to take advantage of solar geometry. The practice had a long history in Europe and the Mediterranean, where Renaissance architectural manuals provided the necessary information.
I have read about the solar illumination events for some time now, particularly the solstice event at San Juan Bautista, where the sun was said to illuminate the tabernacle shortly after rising. The idea has always fascinated me, so I wanted to witness it myself. This year the winter solstice coincided with the end of finals week at the university, so I was able to make the hour-long run down to San Juan Bautista in time to take in the event and head back to campus. I decided to take along my son and a couple of friends to share in the adventure. I also recorded a video of our experience, which I’ve posted above.
On December 21, the day of the solstice, sunrise was officially predicted to take place at 7:16 AM. We arrived at 6:30 am. It was an unseasonably cold winter day, but that didn’t deter the large crowd that was already gathered at the mission. The prospect of witnessing the solar illumination seemed to attract people for various reasons. Some (like me) were there for the first time, while others were proud of making an annual pilgrimage. A gentleman from Salinas told me about how indigenous people in Mexico used the sun’s position at the solstice to gauge whether or not crops would be productive for the coming year, and that such practices were widespread across Latin America. Behind us a group of people had formed a semi-circle in front of the church, chanting, beating drums and shaking rattles. Others had gathered to pray the rosary and other Catholic litanies in front of the church doors.
The landscape was beautiful and the atmosphere was full of anticipation and as the sun begin to cast its rays across the fields adjacent to the mission.
Did I mention it was very cold?
At about 7:15 the church doors opened and we were allowed inside. As the crowd settled in, many had cell phones or cameras ready to record the event (like me). Others began to pray or wait in silence for the sun to enter the sanctuary. All artificial lights were turned off, and the doors of the church were left open. As we waited, the priest of the mission welcomed us and encouraged us to make the most of this event. He then invited us to come up to the altar and bathe in the sun’s rays as they illuminated the sanctuary, so as to intensify the experience of the moment. Soon a queue of people had formed, ready to take their turn standing in front of the altar.
The sun’s rays were almost blinding as they entered through the front of the church. Even with our view blocked by the line of people taking turns on the altar steps, it was clear that the central portion of the altarpiece began to be bathed in light, as the sunbeams moved from left to right.
While the majority opted to go up and stand in front of the altar, others were annoyed at not being able to clearly view the illumination phenomenon. Kathy, a retired 4th-grade teacher from the Central Valley, was disappointed at not getting a full view of the event after driving hours from the Central Valley. She had spent years bringing her students to the mission and developed a love for San Juan Bautista. Before leaving she was kind enough to take my son and me in search of animal tracks impressed into the original church floor tiles, another special aspect of the mission.
The Spanish missions of California contain many secrets, and most of us only scratch the surface of the legacy they represent. I’m sure Kathy will be back, and so will I, hoping to get a better view of this amazing phenomenon. We’re privileged to live in a place where we can witness such extraordinary things first hand.
- Dr. Rubén Mendoza’s article on solar illumination in the California missions.
- Mission San Juan Bautista was founded in 1797.
- It is the 15th of the Alta California missions.
- It was named after Saint John the Baptist.
- The area of the mission is the traditional home of the Mutsun people.
- Click on the map marker below for directions to Mission San Juan Bautista.