An unseasonably warm evening found me at Mission San José last night, the largest of the church sites in the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in Texas. The occasion was the 69th consecutive annual performance on the mission grounds of the traditional pageant Los Pastores: The Shepherds Play (A Christmas Story). I gathered with the modest crowd for the colorful Christian tale recounting the saga of shepherds traveling to Bethlehem to see the newborn savior. Along the way the pilgrims are harassed by Lucifer, until their protector San Miguel the Archangel does battle with the devil. As expected, good triumphs over evil, and the shepherds arrive at last with offerings of gifts and song for the baby Jesus.
Nearly 7 Decades at the Mission
This pageant came to Texas from Mexico around 1910, according to the program notes. The Guadalupe Players first presented it at Mission San José in 1947, making this their 69th performance of this annual event. The tradition precedes by three decades the arrival of the National Park Service at the mission, and the show is sponsored by the Catholic Church, which actually owns the famous church building inside the national park.
Those who come to this pageant for inspiring theatrical entertainment will be disappointed. The Guadalupe Players certainly is not a professional troupe, and it’s hard to characterize them as actors at all. On the other hand, Los Pastores, despite its traditional telling of a Christian story, is not really a devotional performance either. Other than the welcoming prayer, no church officials were there to officiate.
An Experience of Community
So what’s the attraction? Community, I would say. This traditional Christmas pageant connects family, parishioners, and even outsiders like myself, neither Catholic nor local, in a liminal moment of common experience. The telling of this story by a truly multi-generational cast—the actors ranged from children to at least one elderly player who used a walker in his role as the Hermitaño—draws everyone present into the experience of a story that on the surface is painfully simplistic and didactic, but becomes something more in performance. Missed cues and forgotten lines don’t seem to matter; in fact they have a bonding effect as the crowd enters the performance through empathy. Even linguistic barriers disappear with an English narration that makes the Spanish-language script accessible to those with limited skill (or none at all) in the language of the performance.
As I left, I felt connected to a community that had witnessed something quaintly profound. I went from the mission grounds with a buoyed spirit.
Below are a few images I was able to capture of this festive evening at the old Spanish mission in San Antonio. ♨