Winter Solstice at Mission Church
The Year We Noticed the Sun
By Betsy J. Green
Many of us spend much of our time looking at images and words that are less than an arm’s length away. Here in Santa Barbara, we are blessed with a wealth of sunny days, so we take the sun for granted -- except to enjoy the occasional spectacular sunset.
But I predict that future Santa Barbara historians will call 2017 -- “the year we noticed the sun.” On August 21, a partial eclipse dimmed the light from above, and hundreds of us put on eclipse glasses and looked up at the sun.
The next time our attention focused on our daily companion in the sky was during the catastrophic Thomas Fire. During those dark and frightening days, we watched the sun glow red or orange behind a curtain of smoke and ash.
And one group of people noticed the sun for a third time this year -- at the Mission Church on the dawn of the winter solstice. Thursday, December 21, was the end of the solar year. It’s been quite a year.
Between 6:30 and 7:00 a.m., a group of about 50 people assembled on the church steps, and watched the sunrise. A Chumash flutist wafted mournful notes into the dawn, and the spicy smell of burning sage mingled with the soft music. A fire truck churned down Mission Canyon Road past the church, and received grateful waves from the assembled crowd.
But the star of the show was the sun. We were here on the shortest day of the year to witness the sun travel into the church’s open doors, slowly edge down the aisle, and finally light up the elaborate reredos behind the altar.
It has only recently been discovered that ours is one of a number of mission churches that are angled to greet the sun on the shortest day of the year. California Missions Foundation Executive Director, David Bolton, pointed out that the present churches at the California missions sit on the spots where older churches were constructed when the missions were first established, so the Padres had plenty of time to figure out how to site the later chapels to catch the dawn light on winter solstice.
The missionaries were not the first in the Americas to use sun’s light on winter solstice. Some ancient temples in South America were built so that the sun’s rays on winter solstice shine on the main doorway. And, closer to home, the National Park Service has noted that there are a number of circular petroglyphs that are placed so that nearby rocks cast a pointed shadow or allow a shaft of light to pierce the center of the incised designs on summer or winter solstices.
At the Mission Church this week, the shaft of sunlight found the church doors, and the people filed inside for a special mass. The beam of light slowly crept up the baptismal font, lightly touched the water, and sent a beam of light toward the reredos. As the mass progressed, the main shaft of light edged into the church, and lit up the entire altar area. This is what everyone had been waiting for.
When the mass ended, the worshippers walked out of the church, and stepped into the morning light, ready to enter a new solar year. At 9 a.m., not long after the mass had concluded, all the evacuation orders for Santa Barbara were cancelled. Good timing, eh?
Green is the author of the “Way Back When” books that chronicle the history of Santa Barbara one year at a time.