Laynee Reyna, an elder of the Sicangu of the Rosebud Lakota Sioux, remembers her mother waking her every year on her birthday at the moment of her birth: 6:30 a.m. on the winter solstice.
“I grew up in nature, surrounded by the woods,” Reyna said of her early life in Connecticut. She now lives in San Juan Bautista. “Mother would open the upstairs window and push my head out so I could see the Northern Lights.”
The dawning of the winter solstice on Dec. 21 brings with it a special phenomenon that occurs at Mission San Juan Bautista. At sunrise, the morning light streams in from the window above the entrance to the church and strikes the altar at exactly the center, lighting up the tabernacle. It’s a breathtaking combination of manmade and natural special effects that leave viewers in awe.
That certainly was intended, points out archeologist and Mission scholar Ruben Mendoza, who refers to the solstice event as the Illumination. He was first made aware of the solstice event in 1997 by the parish priest, who had noticed the way the light hit the Mission around this time of year.
One clue that the builders intended the light to line up as it does exists in a discovery Mendoza made in the blueprints for a WPA-era project on historic sites in America. The floorplans of the Mission church clearly show a three-degree jog from parallel at the entrance of the church, just enough of a skewing to allow the light to flow from the front window to the back altar and line up perfectly.
Mendoza began a survey of other Spanish churches in the Americas and discovered this orientation to the sun on the morning of the winter solstice was common to many of them. Further investigations gave evidence of other intentional connections between church architecture and other annual solar events. He started a website to document these findings.
Around the time Mendoza was making his first observations, Reyna helped start a tradition around the Illumination at the Mission, bringing to bear her standing as a local Native American leader. The parish priest allowed the church to be opened to the public on solstice morning starting in 1999, and Reyna used this opportunity to bring the local Native community together to celebrate the rising of the sun on this day. That first year, she brought with her a small group of women studying Native culture. Attendance has grown steadily since.
This year, Reyna invited several people to participate in the winter solstice Illumination, including bagpiper Jay Salter, Celtic chanter Shannon Frediani, and guitarist Lawson Garrett. Chief Sonne Reyna and Linda Larios will perform native songs and drumming. Father Alberto Cabrera will speak, as well as preside over the ceremony.
While clouds may obscure the effect on some solstice mornings, predictions are for clear skies this Saturday, Dec. 21.