A Happy Celebration of Christmas and History

I'm not complaining. This is merely a statement of happy fact: I've never gone to church so many consecutive times in my life as when my wife and I spent this Christmas in Loreto on the Sea of Cortez in Baja California.

The reason for our excessive attendance, considering that we are virtually non-church-goers here at home, was a desire to return to a historical origin. For this ancient stone church, this Mision Nuestra Senora de Loreto, the architectural crown of this quiet, dusty, small town 222 miles north of La Paz, was the first mission in all of the Californias, baja and alta, when both regions were under Spanish rule.

Loreto was chosen by Padre Juan Salvatierra in 1697 to be the capital of the mission system being built in the Californias. This was the first of the 20 missions started by the Jesuits during their 70 years of control. When the Jesuits fell out of political favor in Spain, the Dominicans for a short time, and then the Franciscans, carried on the task of building the missions.

An Appropriate Place

Father Junipero Serra, the Franciscan padre who later established nine missions in Alta California, had been a visitor to Loreto when he was named Father-President of the Fernandine missions of Baja California. He then went to Alta California with the expeditions of 1696. From then until his death in Carmel in 1784 he was Father-President of the northern province.

And so Loreto, because it was the first European settlement in the Californias and because of that first church, seemed to us to be an appropriate place in which to spend our first Christmas ever away from family and friends. Unlike the late humorist Robert Benchley, who started the rumor that he spent Christmas in jail when he really left town for a Christmas retreat, we simply told family and friends we were going to Loreto to go to church over Christmas. Stunned silences usually greeted that announcement, since our reputation as Christian outcasts is well-known.

Nevertheless, to church we did go. Unfortunately, we missed the ceremony of La Posada, during which, I'm told, the Holy Family tries unsuccessfully for lodgings. Our Spanish was so rusty--and I advise polishing yours up if you plan to visit Loreto, for not many there are bilingual, including hotel clerks--that we misunderstood the time scheduling of La Posada.

Lving Rosary

At any rate, we thoroughly enjoyed attending a Living Rosary, the Spanish name of which escapes me. It was a series of tableaux presented by costumed children on an improvised stage in a corner of the churchyard. The curtains were on rings and were pulled by hand by children, with much peeping through the center slit at their families and friends sitting on benches.

The climax of the presentation was a living creche scene followed by a parade of colorfully costumed children, singing and carrying wooden hoops on sticks that were gaily decorated with colored papers and bells, rhythmically marking their progress.

The mision's priest, Father Mario Balbiani, whose English was as faltering as my Spanish, kept glancing at his wrist watch as I attempted to question him about the tableaux.

"Excuse me," he said at last, " Es tiempo. "

He hurried to the base of the bell tower and, grasping two ropes that hung down along the outside, expertly tolled the great Spanish bronze bells, announcing the upcoming Mass. Then he hurried inside to put on his vestments and see that all was prepared properly.

The Mass that evening was La Natividad del Senor. In other Masses we attended, Jesus was almost invariably called El Senor, a respectful and reverent appellation I have now incorporated into my own prayers, such as they are. It's vastly more polite, I think, than calling Christ by his first name.

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