- Historic Sites
A Spanish Colonial Christmas
Traditions nearly five hundred years old underlie San Antonio’s month-long celebration
December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
Before any of that history began, nomadic Native Americans from across South Texas and Mexico, known collectively as Coahuiltecans, lived in the area. Their semipermanent communities were hundreds, possibly thousands, of years old when the Spanish arrived. The story of their unhurried existence in what is now the nation’s ninth largest city is chronicled in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, which runs along the river south of downtown. A twelve-mile park driving trail links the five eighteenth-century missions, where the Franciscans tried to shuttle the “neophytes” into the Catholic faith and ready them—and thereby Texas—for inclusion into New Spain.
The first permanent Spanish settlement was established in the spring of 1718, and it nearly failed. The Provincial Texas governor and a missionary together pushed a group through six hundred miles of the Mexican frontier—and spent the whole trip bickering. Their differences ultimately split the group, so Father Antonio Olivares founded the Mission San Antonio de Valero on May 1, and Gov. Martin de Alarcón established the nearby fort Villa de Bexar a few days later.
The arrival of the first civilians, from the Canary Islands in March 1731, is considered the city’s unofficial start. They set up across the river from San Antonio de Valero and named their community Villa de San Fernando. The combined settlements would in the 1770s become the capital of the Texas province. By then the completed mission system was thriving. The missions San José, San Juan Capistrano, San Francisco de la Espada, and Concepción—the last has the oldest unrestored stone church in the United States—formed a chain south along the river for seven miles that became the greatest concentration of missions and Spanish colonial architecture in America.
Life was busy there from 1745 to 1775, but the diseases ravaging the native population hastened the system’s decline. By the end of 1794 the padres had too few converts to continue. Over the next few decades the churches were secularized and the land redistributed. San Fernando and the fort around Mission San Antonio de Valero became the town of San Antonio de Bexar.
Christmas mass at Mission San José isn’t much different from that at any other Catholic church. They’ve been saying mass there and at the other missions since the 1930s, when, after extensive restorations, the Franciscans were invited back. The National Park Service took over maintenance of the missions’ grounds in 1978. Visitors pile off tour buses every Sunday to witness mass in a church with whitewashed walls and few adornments. The morning I went a young couple was having their baby girl baptized. After the service a mariachi band treated everyone to songs in the courtyard out front, and people tapped toes and danced.
Las Posadas and the mystery play Los Pastures, which the friars used to teach the Coahuiltecans about the birth of Christ, are celebrated in classic fashion at the parishes as well as along the riverfront. At Mission San José the chants and pageantry of Los Pastores are performed by the Guadalupe Players sometime during the week after Christmas. They wear elaborate costumes and masks to depict the shepherds who set out for Bethlehem to see the baby, and Lucifer’s minions try to stop the journey. A sword battle ends with good vanquishing evil. Medieval priests had used the play to impress the faith on legions of Europeans who couldn’t read.
The oldest mission is the most famous one, though not for any spiritual reason. The “Shrine of Texas Liberty,” as the Daughters of the Republic of Texas call the Alamo, whose church was built in 1756, had stood neglected for more than twenty years when a Spanish calvary unit took control of it in 1821. After Cos’s defeat, in 1835, Cols. William B. Travis and James Bowie were ordered to hold the fort (David Crockett, of Tennessee, was a volunteer with them). Their aim was to block the Mexican advance north so as to buy time for Generals Austin and Houston and other Texans who were off creating a constitution for their new republic. Travis’s written pleas for reinforcements have stirred immeasurable ore: ”… I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor and that of his country. VICTORY OR DEATH .”
Santa Anna’s four thousand troops stormed the presidio on March 6, 1836, destroying much. The shell of the church was spared, though the facade’s curved peak was actually added later, in 1849. It is now dwarfed by the surrounding downtown office buildings.
Inside I expected to feel the heavy weight of the ghosts of frontier bravado. Instead the hall, with its vaulted ceilings, struck me as bare and exposed, revealing no military advantage against a charging army. Delicate artifacts remain, such as Crockett’s slender rifle and remnants of the awesome knives of the frontiersman Bowie. The six flags that have flown over Texas—French, Spanish, Mexican, Texas Republic, Confederate, and United States—hang at the back wall. At the museum I learned that there were Tejano defenders, and contrary to legend there were about a dozen survivors, including several women, children, and a male slave.