Winter Solstice Illuminations at Spanish Missions
Ruben G. Mendoza - The Conversation
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December 20, 2016

The midwinter solstice illumination of the main altar tabernacle of Old Mission San Juan Bautista, California (Rubén G. Mendoza/Ancient Editions)

On Wednesday, Dec. 21, nations in the Northern Hemisphere will mark the winter solstice – the shortest day and longest night of the year. For thousands of years people have marked this event with rituals and celebrations to signal the rebirth of the sun and its victory over darkness.

At hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of missions stretching from northern California to Peru, the winter solstice sun triggers an extraordinarily rare and fascinating event – something that I discovered by accident and first documented in one California church nearly 20 years ago.

At dawn on Dec. 21, a sunbeam enters each of these churches and bathes an important religious object, altar, crucifix or saint’s statue in brilliant light. On the darkest day of the year, these illuminations conveyed to native converts the rebirth of light, life and hope in the coming of the Messiah. Largely unknown for centuries, this recent discovery has sparked international interest in both religious and scientific circles. At missions that are documented illumination sites, congregants and Amerindian descendants now gather to honor the sun in the church on the holiest days of the Catholic liturgy with songs, chants and drumming.

I have since trekked vast stretches of the U.S. Southwest, Mexico and Central America to document astronomically and liturgically significant solar illuminations in mission churches. These events offer us insights into archaeology, cosmology and Spanish colonial history. As our own December holidays approach, they demonstrate the power of our instincts to guide us through the darkness toward the light.

Winter solstice illumination of the main altar tabernacle of the Spanish Royal Presidio Chapel, Santa Barbara, California. The author first documented this solar illumination of the altar in 2004. (Rubén G. Mendoza)

The 21 California missions were established between 1769 and 1823 by Spanish Franciscans, based in Mexico City, to convert Native Americans to Catholicism. Each mission was a self-sufficient settlement with multiple buildings, including living quarters, storerooms, kitchens, workshops and a church. Native converts provided the labor to build each mission complex, supervised by Spanish friars. The friars then conducted masses at the churches for indigenous communities, sometimes in their native languages.

Spanish friars like Fray Gerónimo Boscana also documented indigenous cosmologies and beliefs. Boscana’s account of his time as a friar describes California Indians’ belief in a supreme deity who was known to the peoples of Mission San Juan Capistrano as Chinigchinich or Quaoar.

As a culture hero, Indian converts identified Chinigchinich with Jesus during the Mission period. His appearance among Takic-speaking peoples coincides with the death of Wiyot, the primeval tyrant of the first peoples, whose murder introduced death into the world. And it was the creator of night who conjured the first tribes and languages, and in so doing, gave birth to the world of light and life.

Hunting and gathering peoples and farmers throughout the Americas recorded the transit of the solstice sun in both rock art and legend. California Indians counted the phases of the moon and the dawning of both the equinox and solstice suns in order to anticipate seasonally available wild plants and animals. For agricultural peoples, counting days between the solstice and equinox was all-important to scheduling the planting and harvesting of crops. In this way, the light of the sun was identified with plant growth, the creator and thereby the giver of life.

Discovering illuminations

I first witnessed an illumination in the church at Mission San Juan Bautista, which straddles the great San Andreas Fault and was founded in 1797. The mission is also located a half-hour drive from the high-tech machinations of San Jose and the Silicon Valley. Fittingly, visiting the Old Mission on a fourth grade field trip many years earlier sparked my interest in archaeology and the history and heritage of my American Indian forebears.

On Dec. 12, 1997, the parish priest at San Juan Bautista informed me that he had observed a spectacular solar illumination of a portion of the main altar in the mission church. A group of pilgrims observing the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe had asked to be admitted to the church early that morning. When the pastor entered the sanctuary, he saw an intense shaft of light traversing the length of the church and illuminating the east half of the altar. I was intrigued, but at the time I was studying the mission’s architectural history and assumed that this episode was unrelated to my work. After all, I thought, windows project light into the darkened sanctuaries of the church throughout the year.

One year later, I returned to San Juan Bautista on the same day, again early in the morning. An intensely brilliant shaft of light entered the church through a window at the center of the facade and reached to the altar, illuminating a banner depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe on her Feast Day in an unusual rectangle of light. As I stood in the shaft of light and looked back at the sun framed at the epicenter of the window, I couldn’t help but feel what many describe when, in the course of a near death experience, they see the light of the great beyond.

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