Room at the Presidio- Two classic Christmas traditions at El Presidio this weekend

"La Pastorela" in action.
“La Pastorela” in action.

You think it’s hard enough to find an apartment in Santa Barbara if you own a cat? Try a donkey, and a pregnant, soon-to-deliver mother. The “no room at the inn” story of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem is a central part of Christmas, and Una Noche de Las Posadas has been a Californian tradition among Latino communities for a very long time. Similarly, the mid-19th-century tale of good vs. evil known as “La Pastorela” (The Shepherds), follows the shepherds as they make their way to Bethlehem to worship the Christ child and are tempted by the Devil along the way. Both events are part of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historical Preservation’s Christmas weekend, and serve to remind us of our city’s older traditions long before we started borrowing from Charles Dickens and Victoriana.

Tonight’s “Las Posadas” (which means ‘the inns’ in Spanish), starts at El Presidio and turns into a procession that mimics Joseph and Mary’s journey, passing through downtown (including Paseo Nuevo and all the Christmas shoppers), finally ending at Casa de la Guerra, where the couple finally find a place to rest. But along the way, businesses and people will be telling them there’s no room and to move on. Now in its 20th year, it has become a Santa Barbara tradition.

Unlike tomorrow’s performance, which is a theater piece to watch, “Las Posadas” creates its own show from the accumulation of the public in the procession. Anybody can join, and there will be plenty of song sheets handed around to help with the sing-along. Most of the songs are in Spanish and date back a century, but that shouldn’t stop the enthusiast. And the community members playing Joseph and Mary cannot help but be upstaged by the unintentional star of the show, the donkey Wilson. The donkey comes from the Hearts Adaptive Riding Academy, as a special loan for the evening.

“Wilson is a little heart stealer, so cute!” says Karen Anderson the Trust’s Director of Education, who acts in the background to make sure all three evenings go off without a hitch. “But it’s the visitors who make the event,” she adds.

Karen likens the evening, only slightly joking, to the end of “The Grinch that Stole Christmas,” when Whoville is celebrating, where “they all gather together simply for the joy of being together. And the more you do it the more you think, I can’t wait to do it again!” Friday night’s event ends with a piñata for the children, and food and hot chocolate for everybody.

In olden times, “Las Posadas” took place over nine nights, but in modern times, one evening is plenty. And anyway, one needs time for the following two nights of “La Pastorela,” where one can see a dramatic devil and traditional Mexican and early Californian costumes. This play, representative of Nativity plays from the mid 19th century, is performed in Spanish, but for non-Spanish speakers, there will be no doubt what’s going on. Many of the actors come from SBCC, and like Friday night, there’s plenty of songs, all dating back hundreds of years.

This is the third year of “La Pastorela”‘s revival, after a moment in the early ’90s when it was also performed in a slightly different format. The evenings are a look back to a time of community theater that involved volunteer actors, singers, and directors, taking place in local Catholic churches.

Luis Moreno, volunteer director of El Coro, the group that leads the singing of “Las Posadas,” looks to these events as a cap to the year. It’s about “letting go and renewing yourself,” he says, and invites us all to do the same.

When: 7 p.m. Friday (Las Posadas) and Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday (La Pastorela)
Where: El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park, 123 E. Canon Perdido St.
Cost:Free (Las Posadas) and $10 Adults, $5 Children 12 and Under (La Pastorela)
Information: (805) 965-0093

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