California missions will be busy with Christmas plays and festivities

“Pray, give us lodging, dear sir,” costumed children plead as a heavy wooden door swings open at Mission San Buenaventura in Ventura.

The youngsters’ plea is repeated over and over. Each time, the answer is the same: There is no room at the inn.

The traditional ceremony known as Las Posadas (the inns) will beckon the faithful and the curious at 7 p.m. on Dec. 16-23. On Friday, snow (machine-made) will fall as the 1782 mission ( holds its tree-lighting ceremony starting at 4:45 p.m.

The celebrations are among many, religious and secular, that will welcome visitors to California’s missions in the weeks before Christmas.

At the first mission built, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá (, the choir will welcome guests to its Christmas candlelight meditation at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 20 and 21. The annual event features holiday songs accompanied by brass and percussion ensembles.


Moving north, Mission San Juan Capistrano (, called the Birthplace of Orange County, will be decorated for Christmas at the Mission from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Saturday. Events will include musical performances, cookie decorating and visits with Santa as well as ringing of its historic bells. Vendors will serve a variety of beverages and foods, including hot cider and tamales.

Various church groups sponsor Las Posadas processions Dec. 15-23 at San Gabriel Mission ( The celebrations begin at 7 each evening, except at 4:30 on Dec. 21. That Sunday, the local Vietnamese community will host the event, with Mary atop a real donkey.

Barnyard animals will appear outside Old Mission Santa Barbara ( on Dec. 20 as part of a living Nativity scene. The activities get underway with caroling at 7 p.m.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring event occurs in San Juan Bautista (, 20 miles north of Salinas.

Even though the mission was built in 1797, a phenomenon locals call the “illumination” wasn’t revealed — at least to modern-day souls — for 200 years.

Eighteenth century friars precisely positioned the building to capture the winter solstice sun, but it wasn’t until 1997 that a priest reported witnessing a beam of light bathing the altar at dawn.

Every Dec. 21 since, people have gathered before 6 a.m., warming themselves with cocoa and coffee. If the sky is clear, their visit is rewarded as sunlight floods in through a window.

“It shines right directly on the altar,” said Larry Brown of nearby Hollister. “As the sun rises, it goes right down the middle aisle. It’s kind of a neat thing.”

Back in Ventura, Mary and Joseph will still be searching for shelter come Christmas Eve. As Mass gets underway, they finally will find refuge inside the mission. A real baby may join them.

“Sometimes, we have a family that has a fairly newborn baby, a month or two old,” said Father Tom Elewaut, a priest of the parish, “and they allow Mary to carry that baby in.”