By Alex Groves
Mission San Juan Capistrano has long celebrated the arrival of the holiday season with its Christmas at The Mission event, offering visitors the chance to enjoy music and fun activities.
That tradition continues this year on Dec. 1, but with a new offering: for the first time ever, The Mission will light its new, 30-foot-tall Christmas tree with a bevy of colorful LED lights.
The lighting, which The Mission hopes to make an annual tradition, will usher in 36 days of tree lighting and holiday experiences for the public through Jan. 6, 2019.
As part of what Mission San Juan Capistrano Director Mechelle Lawrence Adams called a “reconfiguration and reimagining” of the event, Mission San Juan Capistrano is doing away with snow for this year’s event. The white fluffy stuff covered the Mission for visitors to play in during the past three events.
But Lawrence Adams noted that there will be plenty of other fun to be had during this year’s event, which will feature Mariachi music, a choir, food, sweet treats and more.
The event begins at 5:30 p.m. Visitors who have procured tickets for the event will receive a faux candle to place at the base of the Ruins of the Great Stone Church, which is also the site of the new Christmas tree.
As they wait for the tree lighting ceremony to begin at 7 p.m. visitors will be able to see live performances in the Central Courtyard that include Dickens-era carolers, an orchestra and Mariachis playing “Merry-achi Music of the Season.”
They’ll be able to enjoy tamales from Los Golondrinas and sweet baked goods from 3:16 Bakery Shop. Though there won’t be snow on the ground, snow cones—one of the offerings—will be a symbolic stand-in, according to Lawrence Adams.
Children will be able to decorate a holiday cookie with Mrs. Claus and take selfies with Father Christmas in the historic Sala. They will also be able to write holiday messages on Mission postcards to be mailed to service men and women who are away from their families.
The actual tree lighting ceremony will begin at 7 p.m., with Monsignor J. Michael McKiernan of The Mission reading The First Christmas.
After that, music will ring out across the ruins of The Great Stone Church.
“There’ll be three songs that play and after those three songs, the tree will light,” Lawrence Adams said. She noted the lighting will be followed by historic bell ringing.
Roughly 2,500 people are expected to attend the tree lighting this year and tickets are already sold out. However, there are still plenty of chances to see the gargantuan tree.
A Daily Christmas Tree Lighting
Christmas at The Mission kicks of Capistrano Lights 2018: A nightly tree lighting from Dec. 2 until Jan. 6.
Visitors who purchase a general admission ticket and who are on the Mission grounds before 5 p.m. will get to see a 15-minute music and light program as part of their visit.
“We’re ending all of our programming on January 6 because that’s the Epiphany and that’s the end of the Christmas season in the Catholic faith tradition,” she said.
As they make their way out of the Mission, those visitors will be given a complimentary downtown San Juan Capistrano map.
Lawrence Adams said she hopes that people will stay in town following their Mission visit and use the map to explore the historic downtown heritage tourism district with its array of shopping, dining and wine tasting options.
What The Mission Will Look Like
Lawrence Adams said the Christmas Tree this year will be decked out in colored LED lighting with a star on top, but no ornaments. That may change in future years.
“Over the next few years, we will begin to add ornaments to the tree, so the tree will grow into its look,” she said.
As guests enter The Mission the front courtyard, they will be decked out entirely in white lights. As guests make their way to the central courtyard the lights will be in different colors.
Lawrence Adams said the reason for that is to take visitors from “a heavenly experience to a festive celebratory experience.”
Also in the Central Courtyard will be a 10-foot LED-lit wreath that will be in the courtyard from Dec. 1 through Jan. 6. Guests will be able to take selfies in front of the brightly lit wreath.
Lawrence Adams said that one of her favorite parts of having a Christmas Celebration at The Mission is seeing families from all different backgrounds and faith traditions come together and enjoy the beauty of the architecture and take in the meaning of San Juan Capistrano as a place.
“We exceed their expectations this night,” she said. “They are surprised by how beautiful everything is and it’s just so well-worth their visit.”
Lawrence Adams noted that Christmas at The Mission is not the only holiday-themed event on Dec. 1 and encouraged visitors to also head to the Christmas Tree Lighting at The Historic Town Center Park at 4 p.m.
That annual event, which Lawrence Adams started when she planted the park’s live pine tree roughly two decades ago as an employee of the city, features musical entertainment and a variety of holiday-themed activities.
The festivities begin at 4 p.m. with pre-show entertainment that will be followed by a holiday production from Musical Theater University students. The tree lighting begins at 5:45 p.m.
During the event, families can enjoy a variety of activities that include photos with Santa, a “trackless” train ride through Los Rios Park and a puppet show.
Shuttle and trolley services will be offered. The city shuttle will pick up visitors from the JSerra Catholic High School and South Coast Church on Avenida Los Cerritos.
Lawrence Adams recommended checking out the event before heading to the Mission for those who have tickets for the Christmas event.
For those who don’t have tickets, she recommended checking out the tree lighting in the park on Dec. 1 and coming to The Mission on one of the following nights for Capistrano lights.
“We want to make sure our residents take part in everything,” she said.